The Borgia Portrait — a new Venetian mystery

Arnold Clover is coming back, along with his raffish friend Luca Volpetti and the ever-watchful Carabiniere captain Valentina Fabbri. You’ll find them embroiled in a set of very Venetian riddles in the second novel in the series, The Borgia Portrait, published in the UK and US in hardback by Severn House and on audio by WF Howes on August 1, with a mass market paperback from Canongate next year.

The story is summed up in the cover copy…

A noble family, a legendary painting, a cursed palazzo.

When Arnold Clover is recruited by Lizzie Hawker to help her look into her family inheritance, he cannot begin to guess the journey he is about to embark on.

Lizzie’s mother, an Italian countess, disappeared thirty years ago, presumed dead. Her father, a famous, some say infamous, music promoter, has just died and now the family home Ca’ Scacchi, a crooked, fabled palazzo in Dorsoduro, has fallen to her. When her mother vanished so too did a priceless painting, supposedly an erotic portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, which has captivated men for generations.

When a body is discovered in a hidden crypt beneath the checkerboard courtyard of the palazzo, other secrets are unearthed with it. Lying with the body is a document, a story of an episode in Casanova’s colourful life, within it a set of clues that might lead to the location of the painting. But it quickly becomes apparent that Lizzie and Arnold are not the only ones interested in finding the vanished masterpiece.

The search for the lost Lucrezia quickly becomes a race through the secret history of Venice, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Lizzie Hawker’s dilemma — her mother’s disappearance, the improbable inheritance of a legendary ‘cursed’ Grand Canal palazzo, and her struggle to fight off the attentions of a local magnate — are the top-level story here. But at the same time, I wanted to offer up a puzzle — eight riddles she and Arnold need to solve in order to try to find the missing Borgia portrait and put her life back on an even keel.

So why not have a conundrum where the answers lie in the very fabric and history of Venice itself? That is the race at the heart of the tale, a chase to unlock the riddles Lizzie’s mother, a Venetian through and through, left behind. Eight places — all but one of them real — that lie hidden behind the more obvious public attractions of one of the world’s most astonishing cities.

As I said when I launched this series, I want them to be seen as ‘entertainments’, rich fables that transport the reader to different sides of Venice, beyond the tourist traps of San Marco and the Rialto. Even Arnold, who thinks himself an old hand in the city, begins to realise he’s only scratched the surface of the place when Lizzie’s challenge falls into his hands. As did I as I spent the best part of the year going to places I never knew existed.

A tricky, twisty story then, for a tricky, twisty version of Venice. And that goes for the book itself too, since there are two Easter eggs lurking in the cover here, and you’ll find another clue in the typeface of the printed version too. But no spoilers… you’ll have to wait till August.

I hope Arnold’s new outing as is entertaining to read as it was to write.