For me, three key elements support a conventional narrative, each critical to the recounting of a good tale.
- The characters. Love them or hate them, they must be interesting enough for the reader to want to know how their story pans out.
- The world in which they live. Location isn’t enough — that’s a two-dimensional thing. A world is about more than looks. It has atmosphere, aromas, weather, temperature, a feel for the way locals respond to the changing seasons. It’s important to me that this is unique to the story. Or to put it another way, if you could pick up the narrative and shift it from Venice to London or even Rome then I’d feel I hadn’t quite got this bit right.
- Events. The challenges our characters must face along the way in pursuit of the resolution. Events, again, that should often be unique to the world in which they take place.
Every conventional story, be it crime, thriller, horror, sci-fi or mainstream novel, sits on that structural tripod. What makes each different may be the balance between the three. In one of those breakneck, read-in-a-flash thrillers which The Medici Murders isn’t, events are often uppermost, a series of non-stop shocks and twists designed to get you to rip through the book at top speed.
But here I’m focusing more on characters and the unique world that is Venice. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way. But I also want to transport the reader to those dark and cobbled alleys during Carnival, to let them smell the salty winter air, relish the cicchetti and the bitter-sweet taste of spritz, to become absorbed in one of the most extraordinary cities on earth as a very Venetian mystery unwinds around them.
And to get to know Arnold Clover too, an Englishman of a certain age, about to start life afresh as best he can. As I’ve outlined here already Arnold is far from an action hero. An inquisitive, dogged fellow, after a modest degree at Cambridge he’s spent his life working as a professional archivist, latterly for the UK’s National Archives in Kew. He and his wife Eleanor were great lovers of Italy and, ahead of their early retirement, had sold their house in Wimbledon to buy a small flat near the Frari in Venice, a city they both loved.
Then, a few weeks before the move, Eleanor died suddenly. Lost, uncertain of what else to do, he moves to Venice anyway and soon, through contacts in London, finds himself befriended by a fellow archivist, Luca Volpetti, a flamboyant chap, very much the opposite of Arnold, who works at the famous Archivio di Stato of Venice, next to the Frari.
And here comes the challenge. Just when Arnold is beginning to find his feet, an unwanted figure from the past reenters his life: Marmaduke ‘Duke’ Godolphin, once a Cambridge history professor when Arnold was a student there, now a TV personality notorious for a glitzy series of pop history programmes that frequently take a very liberal approach to the facts.
Godolphin has assembled his wife and son and some past students of his in Venice because he thinks he’s uncovered a sensational secret about the Medici murders. Arnold and his fellow archivist Luca are deputed to find proof that a famous Renaissance figure was involved in both Lorenzino’s killing of his cousin and his own later assassination too, a revelation that Godolphin believes will revive his fading career.
That’s quite a tall order in itself, but before the revelation can play out Godolphin is dead, beneath the same bridge where Lorenzino died, stabbed with a dagger much like the one that must have killed the fugitive Medici.
When our story begins, Arnold is being summoned to the office of the Carabinieri capitano Valentina Fabbri, a clever, incisive woman who’s decided the riddle of Godolphin’s death can be solved in a single day while his associates and relatives linger in her cells. Arnold is the one who must recount the story of the late historian’s time in Venice and unlock the key to what led to the man’s death.
As these first two pages of the story reveal , that’s a prospect Arnold finds distinctly daunting. But Valentina is adamant… the truth will out. And in the end, it does, though it may not be the one either of them was expecting.
An entertainment, then. A book, I hope, to curl up with when you feel like taking your imagination to Venice during those curious dark nights of Carnival in February.
The Medici Murders is available in hardback from Severn House from October 4. An audiobook version will be available shortly from WF Howes, narrated by Richard Armitage. Mass market paperback from Canongate next year when you should expect a second outing from Arnold, Luca and the wily Valentina too.