Not all mysteries involve murder. Not all ghosts were once human. Bewitchment can be enchanting. And monsters lurk everywhere.
John Berendt conjures up a gallery of intriguing characters for this magical tour of Venice in the aftermath of the 1996 fire that gutted the historic La Fenice Opera House. At the heart, of course, is the investigation into the cause of fire -- was it arson? was it negligence? was it just an unfortunate accident? But how the fire touched various lives, and how those lives were part of the mystique of the city, makes for fascinating reading.
Spoiler -- The cause of the fire is determined at the end and the responsible parties are convicted. Or are they? In a city like Venice, it's hard to say. Is corruption rampant? Well, maybe yes. That's part of its charm.
The whole city is haunted by its own 1500-year-old past, and menaced by the monsters of time and water and pollution. If ghosts don't actually walk the halls of the palazzos, their spirits remain unforgotten by the living. There are the rooms where Robert Browning read his poetry . . . and where he died. There is the house where Ezra Pound lived with his mistress of 50 years, the house almost stolen by someone perhaps eager to cash in on Pound's fame.
Venice may own much of its current survival to American millionaires who, for whatever reasons, sought to preserve its patrician glamour, perhaps in hopes some of it would magically rub off on them.
Halloween, or the Celtic Samhain, is a time when the veil between our physical world and the spirit world thins to permit visions and visits back and forth. While I was reading John Berendt's fascinating descriptions of the places and people of turn-of-the-millenium Venice, I couldn't help but think of John Ruskin's monumental The Stones of Venice and the impact it had both on his and subsequent generations of both art historians and social reformers, as well as Madeleine Brent's 20th century gothic romance, Tregaron's Daughter. The atmosphere of the gothic winds through the three works like morning fog twisting over the lagoon and drifting down the canals.
An interesting note: Ruskin obtained his own camera in 1849 to take photos of Venice for research. The City of Falling Angels lost half a star for not containing illustrations! Perhaps Berendt expected his readers to sit beside their computers -- or read on them? -- and look up their own photos.
The January 1996 fire, from www.VeniceOnline.it, which has quite a gallery of photos from the fire.
And the rebuilt La Fenice -- "The Phoenix," rising again from its own ashes -- in 2004.