“An unputdownable thriller”
These are the words blazoned across the top of Philip Gwynne Jones’s novel, The Venetian Game, published last year by Constable and chosen this month as Waterstones Thriller of the Month. They appear with my name beneath them, now on stacks and stacks of book in every Waterstones and also on large posters, and I am extremely happy to have them there – and just a touch embarrassed.
The embarrassment is not because I didn’t mean them. I did – and I do. It happened this way: I had just had my novel Ascension accepted for publication by Polygon and my indefatigable agent, John Beaton, got in touch with me and asked if I would read through the manuscript of a novel that had been submitted to him, a thriller set in contemporary Venice. I started reading it on my IPad – and I could not put the device down. This was a story set in contemporary Venice, with intriguing characters, witty dialogue, a most engaging narrator – and a gripping story. I wrote straight back to John to tell him that he was on to a winner. I probably didn’t use the adjective “unputdownable” but I certainly conveyed my enthusiasm to him. John, of course, had had no doubt about the novel’s narrative power; he just wanted to be reassured that the picture of Venice given in the novel stood up to the scrutiny of a Venetian resident. As I recall, just to make it clear that I had read it attentively, I corrected one tiny mis-spelling of an Italian word in a piece of dialogue (having first checked with my wife) and then told him that the writer obviously knew the city intimately. Oh, and that the book was very funny.
The author’s knowledge of the city is not intrusive; he is not forcing his topographical research onto the reader. It is the relaxed but observant familiarity of someone who has not lost his sense of wonder at the city’s beauty and strangeness, but who has become attuned to its rhythms. From the very first pages I was nodding my head with recognition, as I read the description of the Charlie Chaplin imitator at the foot of the Accademia Bridge, of Campo Santa Margherita as “a slightly shoutier version of Morningside”, and of the pompously urgent tones of Venice’s leading daily newspaper Il Gazzettino (its political stance is beautifully described by the narrator as centre-miserablist). This was someone who knew how to drive a motorbike all the way across the Ponte della Libertà to San Basilio and then down the Zattere – and who could bring that convincingly and amusingly into his plot.
So John took the novel on (I think he was going to do so, whatever I said) and placed it with Constable. And then at a certain point Philip asked me (we had, of course, met in the meantime) if I would write a blurb. I was very happy to do so – and very flattered to be asked, since mine is hardly a household name. Being inexperienced I asked what the word count would be and Philip told me Constable wanted one or two sentences, to be delivered by August; as we were then in March I think I said something bantering along the lines that I should be able to manage one sentence by May, another by June, and that would give me all of July to polish them up.
I did actually spend a little time crafting the three (as it turned out) sentences, since I wanted to make sure that I paid due homage to all the qualities I had found in the book. Eventually I came up with this:
As you might guess from the second word of the title, Venetian Game is a playful novel, recounted by a witty and engaging narrator. And as for the second word, it is as Venetian as a painting by Bellini (or a glass of Bellini). Oh, and it’s also an unputdownable thriller.
As there is a book illlustrated by Giovanni Bellini at the heart of the novel’s plot I thought it was a suitable enough tribute, if perhaps just a little laboured. I said to Philip about the final adjective that it was a word I had long wanted to use; I have always enjoyed introducing it to Italian students, telling them that it is a word sometimes found on the back of a thriller that the reviewer has “not been able to put down”, and translating it for them as in-giù-mettibile, which they always love. Philip thanked me and sent it off to Constable.
And then, as I should have guessed (I had actually said to Philip that they could, of course, trim it as much as was deemed necessary), the publishing shears were taken to my overly pondered sentences. The tribute went down from 51 words to 3, and was transformed from blurb to shout-line – meaning that my name got onto the front-cover, which I certainly hadn’t expected.
As I said at the beginning, the words now adorning the cover are an accurate reflection of my feelings on the novel. The fact that they are a little more than slightly clichéd really doesn’t matter. After all, it’s my fault for trying to be a smart-ass would-be ironic post-modernist (I think). And the full blurb (with just the slightest trimming) can be found on the book’s Amazon page.
In any case I can only urge everyone to buy this book. It is, fortunately, just the first of what I hope will be a long series. I’m already looking forward to the next one, Vengeance in Venice, due out next month. And I’m sure that, like its predecessor, it will be both pickstraightupable and unputdownable.