ALIBI, by Joseph Kanon
By Joseph Finder
By Joseph Kanon.
405 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $26.
VENICE exerts an irresistible gravitational pull on writers. Whether it's Henry James's ''great bazaar'' or D. H. Lawrence's ''abhorrent green, slippery city,'' there's always been something unreal about the place: for centuries, it's been little more than a simulacrum of a bygone romance -- a ''folding picture-postcard of itself,'' as Mary McCarthy pointed out. Venice has, she noted, ''been part museum, part amusement park, living off the entrance fees of tourists, ever since the early 18th century when its former sources of revenue ran dry.''
It's a metaphorically rich setting for a novel, maybe almost too rich. (Didn't Thomas Mann pretty much have the last word in ''Death in Venice''?) Certainly, it's not an obvious location for one of the elegant historical mysteries Joseph Kanon has come to specialize in. His previous novels have all dealt with World War II and its aftermath: political intrigue surrounding the race to build the atomic bomb (''Los Alamos''), Washington during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950's (''The Prodigal Spy''), the smuggling of Nazi scientists out of the smoking rubble of Berlin at the end of the war (''The Good German''). Venice, the ancient city-state so renowned for conspiracies and assassinations, where out-of-favor doges were blinded over live coals and bodies strung up between the ''fatal pillars'' of the Doge's Palace turned red from blood, was largely spared the bombing of the last world war. It was never a center of wartime intrigue. Yet Kanon has chosen Venice as the unlikely location for his latest novel, ''Alibi,'' and it turns out to have yielded his richest, most full-blooded work to date.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Kanon's narrator, Adam Miller, just released from the American Army, is visiting his widowed socialite mother in Venice, where she has taken a grand palazzo on one of the canals. Adam has been serving on a de-Nazification team in Frankfurt -- the ''bloodhound detachment,'' he calls it -- investigating war crimes, ''separating the wicked from the merely acquiescent.'' He finds his mother's social set, the expatriate American Venice of Cole Porter and Peggy Guggenheim, confining and cloyingly superficial. When they're not going out to Florian's or Harry's Bar, Grace Miller and her friends spend their time drinking prosecco at their rented palazzos. Still, Grace seems a little lost here: ''She'd come to a city where she could read menus and street signs but whose real language was unknown to her.'' But she's no more lost than Adam is.
He's also suspicious of the new man in Grace's life, an old flame who wants to marry her. Is the aristocratic, suave Dr. Gianni Maglione a fortune hunter after his mother's wealth? At a party, Adam meets a beautiful young Jewish woman, Claudia Grassini, who turns out to be a survivor of the concentration camp at Fossoli, where she was coerced into being ''the camp whore.'' Claudia's suspicions of Dr. Maglione run far deeper than Adam's: she's convinced that Maglione was a Fascist collaborator who helped the SS round up Jews -- and was directly responsible for sending her father to his death.
Adam begins investigating his mother's fiancé, using his Army intelligence connections. But he finds that no one in his mother's circle is remotely interested in uncovering the crimes of the recent past, or delving into any unpleasantness. ''What are his politics?'' Adam asks his mother as she tells him about Maglione. ''I haven't the faintest idea,'' Grace replies nonchalantly. ''I never ask. . . . Besides, it's their country -- things never make sense to outsiders.'' Venice, Adam finds, is a city of artifice, and Venetian society specializes in denial and avoidance. As he begins to uncover all sorts of secrets better left buried, the unintended consequences ripple outward, upending lives and leading inexorably to murder.
Until now, Kanon's novels have all been classic whodunits whose plots essentially begin with the discovery of a body and are propelled by the search for the murderer. In ''Alibi,'' however, Kanon has moved into new terrain: we know who did it. The puzzle is who the victim really is. But the more we find out, the less we understand. As one of Adam's mother's expat friends says, ''It's the ultimate mystery, isn't it? People. Not who done it. Who they are.''
In all his novels, Kanon is interested not just in the political theater of particular historical moments but in their ethical quandaries. Here his hero arrives in Venice with a callow idealistic certitude born of chasing Nazis, a simplistic moral clarity that will be his undoing. ''People do things to survive,'' one character says. ''So we must give them the benefit of the doubt.'' Adam at once finds himself enmeshed in a murder investigation of Hitchcockian twists in which the moral calculus is as opaque as the waters of the Grand Canal.
''Alibi'' is a bit slow out of the gate, and the emerging back story gets a bit tangled. The narrative can also be talky, but fortunately Kanon talks wonderfully well, capturing the witty repartee and high-society drawl of his expats, their revulsion at the unseemly way Adam continues to tug at the dangling threads of their social fabric. Kanon has a great ear for the conversational inanities, the speech rhythms of his characters. He writes without cliché, without sentimentality or melodrama. His portrait of Venice is both sparely rendered and heavily atmospheric.
Adam is fond of taking early morning walks. ''Venice is often said to be a dream,'' he tells us, ''but at that hour, when there is no one out, no sounds but your own steps, it is really so, no longer metaphor -- whatever separates the actual paving stones from the alleys in your mind dissolves. . . . Things appear at that hour the way they do in sleep, gliding unconnected from one to the next, bolted garden door to shadowy church steps to shuttered shop window, no more substantial than fragments of mist.''
Done right, a historical novel is more than sleight of hand, more than a trick of Disneyland-style re-creation. Far too often, we catch a glimpse of the scaffolding behind the sets, hear the whirring of the animatronic mechanism inside the Real Historical Characters who make occasional cameo appearances. Not so with Kanon, who has mastered the art of the historical thriller in which a specific time and place is integral to the story.
''Shall I tell you something?'' someone says to Adam. ''You will never understand this society. This isn't even Italy. It's Venice. Nothing has been real here since Napoleon. Nothing.'' (It's hard not to think of that great movie line: ''Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.'') Such self-consciousness isn't unexpected in a city that's become a work of historical fiction in itself; but Kanon is at his most powerful when he allows his gaze to drift away from the trompe l'oeil spectacle of the decaying palazzos to the murky waterways that connect them all:
''A little past San Ivo a canal was being dredged, a dirty job saved for winter, when no visitors were here to see. Wooden planks dammed each end so big rubber hoses could pump out the water, leaving a floor of mud, just a few feet down, where workmen in boots were shoveling muck and debris into carts. The mud covered everything, spattering the workers' blue coveralls, hanging in clots on the canal walls, just below the line of moss. Gianni's great fear: mud would stick if someone dredged it up.''
By Patrick Anderson,
Monday, April 11, 2005
By Joseph Kanon
Henry Holt. 405 pp. $26
Former publishing executive Joseph Kanon drew me into his fourth novel with a beguiling first sentence -- "After the war, my mother took a house in Venice" -- that promised both the beauties of that great city and the intrigue of the postwar era. To a great extent, the novel keeps that promise. Kanon is an elegant, evocative writer, and his story is replete with rich glimpses of Venice: "Above all, the city was still beautiful, every turn of a corner a painting, the water a soft pastel in the early evening, before the lamps came on. Then the music started at Florian's and the boats rocked gently at the edge of the piazzetta, and it all seemed timeless, lovely, as if the war had never happened."
After setting the stage with such passages, Kanon brings on his characters. The narrator, Adam Miller, is a young American soldier who pursues Nazis in postwar Germany and then, after his discharge, goes to Venice early in 1946 to visit his mother, Grace. She is a rich widow with a "quicksilver quality" who soon falls in love with a handsome Venetian doctor, Gianni Maglione. Despite his mother's happiness, Adam is suspicious. Maglione, he decides without much evidence, is a fortune hunter and perhaps a fascist who collaborated with the Nazis.
We soon realize that, despite Adam's good intentions, this book might have been called "The Blundering American" because he endlessly makes problems for everyone, most especially himself. First, however, he, too, falls in love. Claudia is Jewish, and during the war she was sent to an Italian concentration camp where she was forced to trade sex for survival. Adam is drawn to her mystery and vulnerability, but she wonders if she is still capable of love. They begin spending afternoons together: "Day after day in our cheap hideaway room, warm with radiator heat, we slid against each other, slick with sweat, until, finally exhausted, we felt the world begin to come back a little. . . . Days of it like this, drunk with sex."
The lovers glory in their hideaway; it is when they enter Grace's glittering expatriate world that trouble starts. Claudia, meeting Dr. Maglione, insists that he handed over her dying father to the Nazis. He responds that she is crazy, that far from being a fascist he was secretly helping the partisan resistance. Other characters are introduced: Grace's gay friend Bertie, an American who gives parties and knows secrets; Rosa, a communist and partisan who is helping the Americans track down fascists; and Inspector Cavallini, a sinister policeman with political and social ambitions. Adam learns that even though Venice is "a city so beautiful even the Germans agreed not to fight in it," the war is not really over there, that the hatreds between fascists and partisans still rage on. As the police inspector tells him, "You know, Signor Miller, everyone worked for the Germans. We don't like to say now, but what could we do? This was an occupied country."
This is a world of ambiguity. The characters keep fighting the war, and no one is entirely right or wrong. Adam makes a connection between Venice's architecture and its morality: "There were no straight lines in Venice. Maybe if you lived here long enough your mind began to work that way too, seeing around corners, making leaps out of sequence, until you arrived at the right door." The underlying sadness of the novel is suggested when one dying American expatriate explains why he collaborated with the Nazis: "Sometimes I think the only thing I've really loved is Venice. It doesn't love you back either. But I couldn't lose it."
My only reservations about this novel concern its plot, which I must discuss only in vague terms. Someone is killed -- more or less by accident, but killed nonetheless. The guilty party seeks to avoid detection. But when an innocent person is charged with the murder, the killer cannot accept that and seeks to prove the accused person's innocence even though it will reveal his own guilt. We take a lengthy detour to a wartime massacre of partisans by Germans that, however dramatic, does not have much connection to the case at hand. Everyone is working at cross-purposes, wartime hatreds boil to the surface, and the story climaxes with a blaze of gunfire and a cloud of ambiguity. Despite the idealistic, blundering American, it is a murky, highly political, Italian-style justice that prevails.
What do we make of all this? I have a friend who reads thrillers not for their plots but for their "atmospherics," and I think she would probably love "Alibi." For my part, I think Kanon writes gorgeous prose and creates intriguing characters, but this time he has given us a story that is a bit overwrought. Still, if you want to explore life, love, death, beauty and moral confusion -- all glimpsed from a gondola, so to speak -- you won't do much better than this.
May 2, 2005
Nothing Is as It Seems
A gripping new novel that explores postwar guilt.
By Andrew Nagorski
May 2 issue - In his previous novel, "The Good German," which was set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of Nazi Germany's defeat, Joseph Kanon offered an action-packed plot and an underlying theme of pervasive guilt. In his new novel, "Alibi" (405 pages. Henry Holt), the former publishing executive dials back ever so slightly on the action in a still fast-moving story, allowing for a more complex exploration of postwar guilt. The result is a terrific read that is both entertaining and unsettling, leaving no doubt that Kanon has come into his own as a writer.
The tale unfolds in Venice in 1946, a setting as drenched in moral ambiguity as it is in the "damp, misty cold" of February when Adam Miller arrives to visit his widowed mother. Having just finished his stint as a U.S. Army war-crimes investigator in Germany, Adam still sees the world as divided between good guys and bad guys, those who fought the evil of fascism and those who collaborated. But, as he soon discovers, nothing is quite so clear-cut in Venice, whose inhabitants—both its old residents and an international community enjoying the good life—all found ways to survive the Nazi occupation. As Gianni Maglione, his mother's Italian suitor, tells him: "You learn how to bend with a history like ours."
Adam doesn't want to accept that reasoning. He quickly writes off Maglione as a fortune hunter preying on his socialite mother. The impetuous American also falls for Claudia, a young Jewish woman, who tells him she was deported to a camp late in the war and raped there. Who can be more innocent than a beautiful woman who just barely survived the Holocaust? And when Claudia encounters Maglione, the man about to marry Adam's mother, she attacks him as a collaborator who handed over her ailing father to the Germans. For Adam, his mission is now clear: avenge his lover, and save his mother.
But Adam's certitude that he is fighting for justice and truth begins to disintegrate as he acts upon those convictions. When the tensions between him and Maglione escalate into violence, he finds himself plunged into a world of moral compromises. Suddenly, he recognizes that many of his initial assumptions were off the mark—about Maglione, his mother and Claudia. But it's too late to undo the damage, since blood has been spilled and any alibi will be a lie. Like Pyle, that quintessential antihero in Graham Greene's "The Quiet American," this American ultimately proves to be a destructive force, someone fatally flawed by his black-and-white view of the world.
As an author, Kanon is fully vindicated. He exploits the majestic, murky setting of Venice to explore his theme of guilt with characters who are convincing and troubling. The action is taut—including a wonderful chase scene through Venice's canals—but not overdone. Kanon has found just the right mix. Bravissimo!
Saturday, April 30, 2005
Alibi, by Joseph Kanon, Henry Holt, 405 pages, $39.95
If you like historical novels with hefty shots of sex, obsession and death, Alibi is your book of the year. Kanon, whose previous stellar works include Los Alamos and The Good German, sets this story in 1946. And what a tale it is! Adam Miller has just been demobilized from the army, where he was a war-crimes investigator. He's in Venice with his widowed mother, a wealthy member of international café society who wants to relive prewar party days. He wants to forget the horrors he's witnessed. Venice is the perfect spot. It seems untouched by the war. Palazzos open, champagne flows, love blossoms.
Adam falls for the beautiful and sensuous Claudia, the last remaining member of an old Jewish Venetian family. She has just emerged from an Italian concentration camp. Adam's mother's love is an old beau, Gianni Maglione, aristocrat, doctor, possible collaborator. Is he after her love or her money? Then Claudia introduces a whole new vision of Gianni that leads her to believe in a Venetian conspiracy of death and fascism. Is she mad? Vengeful?
The heart of this novel is a terrible act that resonates across the lives of every character in it. At the end, one is emphatically fully reminded of P. D. James's observation that the most dangerous emotion isn't hate, but love. Kanon builds up the complex characters as he constructs the dense narrative and twisting plot.
There are touches of le Carré and Graham Greene, but Kanon is too good to ape another writer. He pays homage to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, with his obsessive characters and oppressive atmosphere, but Kanon's obsession in Venice is more destructive, appropriate to a later, more violent age.
By Dick Lochte
May 4, 2005
"ALIBI," Joseph Kanon's new novel of crime and consequence, is set in Venice, Italy, less than a year after the end of World War II, a historic milestone that apparently weighs heavily in the author's mind. His fiction debut, "Los Alamos," took place in the waning days of the war, involving a mysterious murder that threatened the Manhattan Project. Though his second book, "The Prodigal Spy," moved on to the HUAC witch hunts of the 1950s and beyond, his third, "The Good German," returned to the postwar period.
That 2001 novel played out in a bombed and battered Germany, which is where "Alibi's" young protagonist, Adam Miller, has been attached to a military unit charged with ferreting out war criminals, or, as he puts it, "separating the wicked from the merely acquiescent." He's only weeks away from mustering out when his socialite mother invites him to Venice, where she has taken residence, prompted, he presumes, by memories of better days when she and his late father "idled away afternoons on the Lido" in the company of other affluent pre-jet-setters such as Linda and Cole Porter.
Moving from a ravaged Frankfurt — its camps "full of corpses, wheeled out in farm carts to mass graves," kids "eating out of PX garbage cans," women "passing bricks hand over hand, digging out" — to a physically unscathed, party-hearty Venice does little to dissipate Adam's war-weariness. His mood darkens when he discovers that his mother is thinking of marrying a local doctor whom she's known since the old days.
Though Gianni Maglione is a respected healer as well as a Venetian aristocrat with "doges in his family," Adam suspects that beneath his exquisitely tailored dinner jacket beats the cold heart of a gigolo. This concern becomes almost insignificant when, in the sort of coincidence one rarely finds in fiction these days, the former Nazi hunter's new Jewish-Italian girlfriend (via love-at-first-sight at a palazzo party), recognizes Maglione as the Nazi quisling responsible for the death of her father.
Somewhat impetuously, Adam not only prevails upon his Army associates to look into the doctor's background, he also accuses his prospective stepfather of being a fascist and a fortune hunter. These actions eventually lead to several murders and the fulfillment of Adam's destiny as the sort of bona fide noir hero suggested by the book's title.
Kanon, who for many years was a publishing executive, is an elegant stylist whose novels have been compared to those of Graham Greene and John le Carré. Indeed, "Alibi" seems tinted by at least one shade of Greene. The youthful and naive Adam, trying to force his self-righteous beliefs on a culture he fails to understand, is not unlike Greene's "Quiet American" Alden Pyle whose efforts in Saigon met with similarly, if not exactly, disastrous results.
Greene was fond of Saigon, however, and since the ox he was goring was (in his perception) America's unwarranted interference in the politics of Vietnam, Pyle was that book's antagonist, observed in all his unwavering dedication to democracy by the novel's narrator-protagonist, a cynical, burned-out British war correspondent named Fowler.
Kanon's tale lacks even that dubious a moral center. The only voice is that of its not-so-quiet American, Adam, who is disdainful of Venice's centuries-old tradition of burying its scandals and sins in the deepest sections of its grand canal and equally critical of the expatriates flashing their fabulous wealth in the sunken-cheeked faces of the impoverished locals. In his callow self-involvement, he finds fault in everything and nearly everyone, but falls suddenly silent when it comes to his monumental failings.
Even at the end, when all the truths are told and all the crimes have been accounted for, by truth or lie, he seems unwilling to acknowledge any guilt for the major role he has played in creating the chaos. In lieu of remorse, we get only regret and bitterness. "Alibi," with its beautifully crafted prose, clever dialogue, smartly rendered time and place and moments of high suspense, is missing one crucial element — a protagonist with enough self-awareness to make him worth the splendid literary trappings.
Dick Lochte is a critic of crime fiction and author of the suspense thriller "Sleeping Dog."
April 29, 2005, 11:42AM
Venice's shades of gray
By JOHN FREEMAN
By Joseph Kanon.
Henry Holt, 404 pp. $26.
Though it was a refuge for dowagers, painters, poets and the idle rich, Venice could not be a refuge for its Jews during World War II. After Italy signed an armistice with Germany in September 1943, roundups began in northern Italian cities. On Nov. 30, G. Buffarini Guidi, Mussolini's interior minister, ordered all Jews sent to camps.
Even though Italy was not as culturally Jewish as other parts of Europe — there had been more Jews in Krakow than in all of Italy, for example — there must have been an uneasy feeling in Venice once the war was over. The word ghetto, after all, originated there, and Jews were an important part of the community. Nazi collaborators must have been visible on the street or at the opera house after the war. What would their alibi be? Or would anyone even ask them?
Here are the questions animating Joseph Kanon's fourth moral thriller, Alibi, a book so full of shades of gray it could only be set in Venice. Our guide through this labyrinth of truths and half-truths is Adam Miller, a 20-something American G.I. who spent his tenure in the Army hunting down Nazi war criminals. Adam has come to Venice to rest and recuperate and to visit his rich widowed mother, who has come to recapture the golden days of her youth.
The clash of these two purposes gives Alibi an unusually intimate kind of tension, one that ratchets higher when Adam meets Claudia, a Jew who escaped death by acting as mistress to an Italian fascist. She has returned to Venice and lives a determinedly low-profile life. Until Adam brings her to a party and introduces her to his mother's new beau, Gianni Maglione. All at once Claudia recognizes the Venetian doctor who turned her father over to the SS.
This is Kanon's third book to deal with the postwar period, and it seems the most self-consciously literary of the group. Los Alamos unfolded in the spring of 1945 and involved the murder of someone attached to the Manhattan Project. The Good German evoked the wreckage of postwar Berlin through the eyes of a former CBS correspondent.
Each of those books arose from its context with little apparent effort. In Alibi, however, you can feel Kanon working to tease mystery and furtiveness out of his Venetian setting. He wants us to see Venice of the expatriate community, not of the locals (as Donna Leon does in her Commissario Brunetti series). Kanon also wants us to appreciate the decadence of Venice's beauty, which of course the war spared.
So Adam lingers a bit too long on the accoutrements of tacky money and tourist vistas: The torches set up for nighttime parties, the drinks every day at 5. Dialogue will occasionally halt so Kanon — via Adam — can pan meaningfully across the piazza San Marco and show us all the beauty that watched over the Holocaust from afar, with a neutrality Adam views as criminal.
As a result of all this excess prose, Alibi lumbers like a sprinter in a fat suit. There's a speedier creature in there, but Kanon just can't quite let it out. Once a murder actually occurs — some 150 pages into the book — the action speeds up, and Adam, Claudia, an Italian policeman and a former partisan named Rosa begin parsing the alibis of those involved. All this over a killing that during the war was not just OK but honorable.
"It's a good lie," says one character about partisan revenge killings. "To kill. And then [the war is] over and it's the opposite."
Kanon is right to examine the moral slipperiness of killing in and out of war, but these discussions sit heavily on the book, especially since Alibi takes so long to get started.
To finish the book one needs to rush before the sunset of attention arrives. And as anyone who has visited Venice before will tell you, that's no way to spend time in a city that has stood the test of time so well.
John Freeman is a writer in New York.
ALIBI Joseph Kanon Holt, $26, 416 pages
Sunday, April 17, 2005
While other cities in Europe were devastated during World War II, glittering Venice remained remarkably unscathed. Here, expatriates could come to drink at Harry's Bar, listen to the violins at Florian's cafe in Piazza San Marco alongside the locals and escape the horrors happening elsewhere.
In "Alibi," Joseph Kanon ("The Good German," "Los Alamos") takes us to Venice in 1946, when the war has just ended and people are recovering from its ravages, attending cocktail parties, operas and balls, yet suffering in silence from irrevocable events and deeds. Kanon spins a tale that includes a steamy romance and a murder plot that follows a decidedly different path than the average whodunit. He also offers a history lesson about lives during that war, when people could vanish without a trace and laws were bent, if not broken altogether.
Adam, an American soldier with a desk job in Germany, comes to Italy see his mother, Grace, an attractive widow who has made a new home for herself in Venice and is being wooed by Gianni Maglione, an Italian doctor from an influential family she's known for years.
While there, Adam falls in love with an Italian Jew named Claudia, who tells him a horror story about Maglione that throws Adam's life into conflict. The term ghetto originated in Venice, and through Claudia, Adam learns about the real treatment of her people not only by Germans, but by Italians with fascist leanings.
The fast-paced story consists primarily of dialogue, and although Kanon has been compared to John Le Carre, the depth, introspection and character development of Le Carre aren't here. Instead, Kanon's spare, fluid language moves the story along, as his clever, surprising plot delves deeply into time and place. We know enough about the characters to care about them against his shimmering backdrop of glamorous, sinister Venice, but they're sparsely sketched, like figures in an action film. His descriptions of this wondrous city shimmer and glow resplendently, however, and Venice becomes the most vital presence of all, suffering, enduring and celebrating life during a dark hour in history.
Holly Johnson recently reviewed "Loop Group" by Larry McMurtry for The Oregonian.
One couple as lovers, murderers, conspirators
Sunday, May 1, 2005
The tension in Joseph Kanon's powerful new novel, Alibi (Holt; 416 pages; $26), comes not from guessing who committed the crime but from the question of whether they'll get away with it.
Burrowing deeply into Patricia Highsmith territory, Kanon has crafted an absorbing tale of young lovers in postwar Venice who unwittingly become murderers and then anguished conspirators as they attempt to cover up their crime.
Adam Miller had been with the U.S. Army in Germany, where he investigated war crimes. Visiting his widowed mother in Venice, he first becomes enamored with the old-world surroundings and then with a complex woman named Claudia, who is Jewish and carries heavy baggage from her wartime experiences.
Meanwhile, Adam is alarmed to learn that his mother plans to wed an Italian doctor named Gianni Maglione, who appears to be at best a gold-digger and at worst a former Nazi collaborator. For her part, Claudia says Gianni was responsible for sending her father to his death.
"Alibi" keeps readers off guard by consistently challenging what they think they know. Did he really do that during the war? Did she? If not, then who? And why?
The deeper Adam and Claudia become entangled in their own scheming, the less sure they are about fuzzy questions of truth and morality. As their lies unravel, an almost palpable sense of dread hangs over the proceedings as we wait to see when, and how, everything will fall apart.
And then, just when it seems as if things can't get any more excruciating, the plot kicks into overdrive for a surprisingly action-packed finish.
Kanon, whose other historical suspense novels include "Los Alamos" and "The Good German," is frequently compared to the likes of John le Carre and Graham Greene. With "Alibi," he shows that he's up to the comparison.
Alibi: A Novel by Joseph Kanon
Hardcover, Audio, CD
Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
Alibi, Joseph Kanon continues in the time period of The
Good German, looking at the repercussions of wartime atrocities on
individual lives in post World War II Europe. This time, he's moved from
Berlin to Venice, Italy.
It's 1946 and Adam Miller has completed his service as a U.S. Army war crimes investigator in Germany. He wonders 'Does anyone really come back from the war?' and speaks of having 'to be brought up in stages, like deep-sea divers, to prevent the bends.' Adam joins his feckless widowed mother Grace in Venice, Italy, a place where she and his father spent many happy years. Now, she is seeing a great deal of a friend from the old days, the handsome, smooth Dr. Gianni Maglione. Adam is suspicious of his mother's suitor.
On the surface, Venice seems unaffected by the war, but Adam wonders. Then he meets and falls hard for Claudia, a Jewish woman who shows him a different, seamier side of the city. She speaks of the use of air raid sirens during the war to mask the rounding up of Jews. Claudia survived the Fossoli camp through the attraction she held for her jailer, who repeatedly raped her. She tells Adam 'You think you want to kill them all. Where do you stop? The guard who pushed the children on the train? Yes, him. Then why not the ones watching? Why not everybody? And then you're like them.'
When Claudia meets Gianni at a party, she recognizes him as the doctor who betrayed her and her sick father to the Germans. Claudia ended up at Fossoli and her father in Auschwitz. Adam uses his Army contacts, and their sources (who have ties to the Communists) to investigate. Events escalate and there's a murder. In clouded circumstances, influenced by the horrors he witnessed in Berlin and by Claudia's terrible story, Adam keeps trying to do the right thing, and gets more and more enmeshed, especially when he gets involved with a police officer named Cavallini, who's a great deal cannier than he seems.
Alibi reminded me a little of Crime and Punishment. In it, Joseph Kanon addresses the moral dilemmas of the aftermath of war (what were war crimes versus acts of human beings simply intent on survival, what is justice?) He also shows how the baggage people (often unfairly) carry can drag themselves down, and others with them. As usual Kanon gives us a historical that delves deep, one not to be missed.
deseretnews.com salt lake city, utah
Appealing 'Alibi' has romance, intrigue
By Dennis Lythgoe
Deseret Morning News
ALIBI, by Joseph Kanon, Henry Holt, 405 pages, $26.
Set in the
mysterious canals and lagoons of historic Venice just after World War II, this
stunning novel of romance and intrigue focuses on Adam Miller, a young man who
has come to visit his widowed mother, and whose memories are deeply carved with
horrors he witnessed as a U.S. Army war-crimes investigator in Germany.
Venice is a good place to forget because it seems always the same, its beauty undisturbed by war, and during his visit, Adam falls in love with Claudia Grassini, a Jewish woman who has her own scars from the war.
As a result, Adam comes to grips with another Venice, one that has been compromised by the cruel occupation of German forces. When he discovers that his mother is planning to marry Gianni Maglione, a suave Venetian physician, he becomes quite disturbed.
Maglione, according to Claudia, was involved in assisting the enemy during the war. So Adam, worried about his mother's well-being, researches Maglione's past. When it seems that Maglione's past is the book's central issue, all that is dashed by a grisly murder. From then on, the moral dilemma becomes not just whether an occupied people is justified in cooperating with the enemy, but whether murder is justified in the aftermath.
The novel is extraordinarily well-crafted and well-written. The characters are wonderfully diverse, but the reader continually deals with the compelling question as to whether any of them can be trusted. A cloud of conspiracy hangs uncomfortably over Venice as smart, explosive personalities interact through both brilliant dialogue and graphic violence.
Such odd but charismatic characters as Bertie, a good friend of Grace, Adam's mother; Police Inspector Cavallini, who frequents all the parties and balls, even though some think his status should deny him that privilege; the wealthy but snobbish Montanaris, who share Maglione's box at the opera; Giulia Maglione, Gianni's attractive daughter; Rosa, a fiery army investigator; Joe Sullivan, Adam's fellow investigator in Germany — and many others, all powerfully diverted by the delightful music of Cole Porter.
Of almost equal importance are the characteristics of Venice — its buildings, canals and piazzas, the Accademia where Claudia works, the ghetto in Cannaregio, the gondolas, San Sebastiano the Veronese's church, La Fenice, La Zattere, Harry's Bar. All of Venice is placed in context and in the lives of the major players. The author knows the city and utilizes it with expertise.
The love scenes between Adam and Claudia, while illicit, are tastefully described, and the witty repartee between the lovers is good enough to compare with the good books and films of the 1940s. Kanon's storytelling talents for intrigue may be unparalleled.
August 06, 2005
A death in Venice
By Peter Millar
by Joseph Kanon
Little, Brown, £15.99; 416pp
£14.39 (free p&p)
by Henry Porter
Orion, £10; 400pp
£9 (free p&p) 0870 1608080
GREAT FIRST LINES don’t make a book, but they certainly help it to pass the airport bookstall test. Robert Harris’s flawed Archangel, for example, hooks you from the opening: “Late one night a long time ago — before you were even born, boy”, establishing a storytelling voice, settling you down to listen to an old man’s tale of terror.
My absolute favourite, though, was penned by Charles Dickens. It is two sentences, sort of, but only six words: “Marley was dead. To begin with.”
That gets A Christmas Carol, one of the world’s great ghost stories, off to a cracking start: jokey and spooky all at once.
And now along comes Joseph Kanon with the introduction to his latest trawl through the debris of the Second World War. Alibi’s first line is a wonderfully understated piece of scene-setting: “After the war, my mother took a house in Venice.”
Just ten words, but already we know that this is a story set in the aftermath of conflict, narrated first hand by a participant who will survive the events that follow, that it concerns family — upper-class family at that, the sort of people who “take a house”, rather than rent one — and that it is set in a city of romance and mystery.
This is pretty much all you need to know about Alibi. Except, perhaps, that the rest of the writing is every bit as good. This is a beautifully crafted, gripping murder story as poignant and subtle as any Shakespearean tragedy. You’ll gather I liked it.
Adam Miller, an American officer who had been chasing former Nazis in occupied Germany, is on leave, staying with his wealthy mother in the city where she spent her youth. But she has succumbed to the charms of Gianni Maglione, an old suitor, who Adam fears might be a gold-digger looking to supplement his impeccable aristocratic pedigree with hard Yankee dollars.
Then, at a party in a palazzo where expatriates and aristocrats are trying to put the glitter back in Venetian society, he falls head over heels for the beautiful Claudia, who turns out to be a Jew who avoided deportation to Auschwitz by sleeping with an Italian camp commandant and tells him that Gianni gave her father to the Nazis.
An argument on the night of Adam’s mother’s engagement leads to Gianni’s death at the hands of Adam and Claudia. But as they attempt to cover their tracks the past creeps back on them as insidiously as the mist from the Venetian lagoon.
Was Gianni poor and is Adam’s mother really rich? Was Gianni really a collaborator? Communist partisans emerge from the shadows, and the inscrutable police inspector Cavallini draws ever tighter circles.
The love story, police procedural and wartime intrigue merge in a tale of amoral duplicity that builds to a cinematic set piece on the waterways at night, and a post-climactic finale to equal Casablanca.
Brandenburg, by Henry Porter, is a creditable attempt to do much the same sort of thing to the end of the Cold War, a story of Stasi intrigue played out against a landscape of confrontation that few of the players realise is about to evaporate.
It is well researched — up to a point — and builds a sustained atmosphere that is heightened by the fact that the reader knows what is coming when the characters don’t.
However, for those of us who were there at the time too much of it — the use of Grepo, for example, for border guards (they were army not police by 1989 and had been for decades) — has the ring of out-of-date research rather than experience. But that may be my problem rather than yours.
Everything wrong is wrong for a
Toby Clements reviews Alibi by Joseph Kanon.
Many thriller writers knock out a book a year and the results of the rush are usually all too obvious: wooden characters, risible dialogue, implausible plots and stupid sidekicks who need it all explained time and time again. You cannot say the same of Joseph Kanon. This is his third novel since 1998, but he has not wasted a moment, because Alibi is a thriller with a slide-rule perfect plot combined with all the atmosphere and the dialogue of an Alan Furst novel - and there can be no higher praise than that.
Adam Miller, hero of The Good German, has been discharged from the American army, but after bomb-flattened Berlin and the moral complexities of his work in the de-Nazification programme, so painfully rendered in that novel, he is jaded and heartsick. At a loose end, he joins his widowed mother, who has taken a grand house in Venice, "a city so beautiful even the Germans agreed not to fight in it". The novel begins slowly, with an insomniac Miller walking the early morning canalsides, wondering what to do with his life. He learns that his mother has a new boyfriend - an Italian called Gianni - but pretty soon Adam himself is distracted by Claudia, a Jew with a complicated past and an uneasy relationship with Venetian society.
At this point one could be reading an Edith Wharton novel about American innocence coming to grief on the sophisticated shores of European decadence; it comes as no surprise when Adam's mother and Gianni announce their engagement. Gianni is a gold-digger, obviously, but how does Adam alert his mother without hurting her? This is an ordinary human dilemma that nicely recruits your empathy and sets your mind one way or the other: against youth or age, innocence or second chances, romance or pragmatism. One completely forgets that this is supposed to be a thriller - full of cheap plot twists and the like, so it comes as a genuine shock when, at the engagement party, Claudia flinches when she sees Gianni. She snarls at him, calling him a murderer and accusing him of betraying her father to the SS.
Post-war Germany was obviously a morally murky place, but how much more so must Italy, and especially Venice, have been? What kinds of bargains must have been struck to keep the fighting away? And in Italy, unlike Germany, there was a resistance, with a powerful voice that, after the war, no one wanted to hear, especially when it came to settling scores. But this is sour meat and drink to Miller, who begins to investigate his mother's fiancé only to discover more than he wanted to, not just about Gianni but about all the petty post-war deals. The more he discovers, the less he finds he knows. Everything right is wrong and everything wrong is wrong for a reason. The pressure that builds in Adam's head is beautifully realised.
The novel morphs sharply from there into one form and then another, each satisfying enough, so that when it changes direction one can only be impressed by Kanon's manipulative skill:
She smiled slightly. "A man who is Order of Rome, who visits SS, who reports Jews, this man tells you he does this to save a partisan. How would he know? How would he know the man was a partisan?"
I said nothing. Not the lie, the kind of lie.
"The man told him," I said weakly, taking his side to see how it would fit.
None of it is as it first seems, and the book has to be re-read in the light of what is discovered, so that you can see what was meant below the surface of a casual conversation.
Alibi is consistently atmospheric, wholly engrossing and one of the finest thrillers you will read this year - up there with the classics of the genre. It is just a shame we will have to wait so long for Kanon's next one.