The New York Times
The Lying Tongueby Andrew Wilson
Fresh from finishing university in England, Adam Woods arrives in Venice to begin a new chapter in his life. He soon secures employment as the personal assistant of Gordon Crace a famous expatriate novelist who makes his home in a dank and crumbling palazzo, surrounded by fabulous works of art, piles of unanswered correspondence and the memories of his former literary glory.
Before long Adam becomes indispensable to the feeble Crace, and he finds himself at once drawn to and repelled by his elderly employer's brilliant mind and eccentric habits. As Adam comes to learn more about the scandal that brought Crace to Venice years ago, he realizes he has stumbled upon the raw material that could launch his own literary career and makes a bold decision: He will secretly write the famous author's biography. But outsmarting Crace is easier said than done, and the two soon find themselves locked in a bitter contest over the right to determine how the story of Crace's life will end. Against the haunting backdrop of the serene city, the two men engage in a ruthless game of cat and mouse that builds to a breathtaking and unexpected conclusion.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Patricia Highsmith, the subject of British journalist Wilson's acclaimed biography Beautiful Shadow, would be delighted by this standout debut novel, which heralds a major new talent in the psychological thriller genre. After a tutoring job in Venice falls through, aspiring novelist Adam Woods appears to luck into the perfect position there—as personal assistant to the reclusive Gordon Crace, an acclaimed writer whose life is shrouded in mystery and who's published only one novel. Crace, who's locked himself away from the glories of his chosen city, insists Woods abide by a set of strict rules, including not mentioning Crace's literary success. In clearing out the author's mess of a study, Woods finds two letters that hint at a dark secret in Crace's past, and begins to discreetly probe his employer's past, with calamitous results. Wilson brilliantly and subtly introduces doubt in the reader as to Woods's reliability and character before delivering some potent final plot twists. Fans of classic Hitchcock will be richly rewarded. (Feb.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Sarah Dunant, author of The Birth of Venus
- Canongate Books
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Read an Excerpt
Wherever I went I saw a question mark at the heart of the city. The first time was at the airport while waiting by the baggage carousel. I took out my guidebook, flicked to the map at the back, and the form seemed to jump off the page: the Grand Canal snaking its way through the saturated land, a constant interrogator.
I looked around and wondered what brought these people to Venice. A young Chinese man concentrated as he eased a new SIM card into his mobile. A pretty, dark-skinned woman took off her glasses, retrieved a small mirror from her jacket pocket and proceeded to drop fish-scale-thin contact lenses into her eyes. A bald man, his shaved head reflecting the harsh yellow glow of the airport lights, waited impatiently for his luggage, his eyes nervous.
I knew what I was here for. I smiled to myself as I compared my position with that of my friends back in London, preparing to start dull postgraduate courses or earning less than the minimum wage in one of the so-called creative industries. My best mate, Jake, had just taken a job as a junior on the diary page of a newspaper and was so poor he was forced to subsist on cheap wine and free canapés. I wanted something better.
In my final term at university I had told people, perhaps rather foolishly, that I was going to write a novel. London held too many distractions. All I needed was the time to write. And now I would have it.
A couple of months back, Jake had told me that one of his father's friends, an Italian investor, was looking for someone to go out to Venice to help his sixteen-year-old son with his English. It was the perfect opportunity. The plan was to teach Antonio in the mornings, which would leave me the rest of the day to work on my book, which I had decided to set in Venice. After a half-hour conversation over the phone and a scurry of emails, I was offered the job. The money wasn't great around three hundred euros a month but it came with a free room. I was due to start in a couple of days. I couldn't believe my luck.
After retrieving my bags and slinging them onto a trolley, I walked out into the hot night. A pink moon shimmered in the sky. I followed the trail of people heading toward the water launch through a series of makeshift plastic tunnels that trapped the heat, so the air I breathed seemed to burn the inside of my throat. As I neared the Alilaguna stop, I could hear the lapping of the tide against the side of the dock. I imagined clear, refreshing water. What I saw shocked me: a liquid that looked more like tar, thick and viscous and covered with a slimy film brimming with debris. A dead pigeon floated on top of the water, its body undulating with the gentle ebb of the tide. A current swept its body toward the dock. It had no eyes.
I didn't have to wait that long before a launch arrived. I bought a ticket on board and spent the next hour traveling through the dark lagoon. At the stop nearest St. Mark's, I lugged my bags off the boat and stopped to study my map. That question mark again. I found the tiny street just behind the piazza and made a mental note of its location. I started to walk across the square. All around me I heard the constant clapping of pigeons; there was something faintly mocking about their tone.
The hotel was small and dingy. It smelt of stale tobacco and bad drains. The proprietor, a tiny, pasty-faced man with translucent skin, limp black hair and a large, overhanging top lip fixed me with his mean bead of an eye. He stretched out his right hand, covered by a black leather glove, and gave me the key to my room, number 23 at the top of the building. I smiled, climbed the stairs and opened the door. Old wooden beams crossed the ceiling of the room. Damp stains mottled the peach wallpaper. The bed linen looked like it hadn't been washed. There was a cockroach in the miniature washbasin. But it would only be for a night. Tomorrow I would move into the Gondolinis' flat near the Arsenale. And the day after, I would start work on my novel.
As my appointment with Signore and Signora Gondolini wasn't until four in the afternoon, I had more or less the whole day to explore the city. After breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and arranged to pick up my luggage later. Although I had never been to Venice before I had a clear picture of it in my mind: an elaborate stage set floating on water, an architectural dreamscape. Yet the undeniable beauty of the city the Venice I had seen in guidebooks and in films was bleached out by the white-hot sun and eclipsed by the sheer mass of tourists. Tour leaders thrusting colored umbrellas high into the air tried to make their voices heard above the multilingual throng. The overweight wept sweat from every pore. Women clutching jaunty gold handbags and wearing their best costume jewelry attempted to maintain their composure while coming face-to-face with cloned versions of themselves. Many of the husbands looked unseeing, dead-eyed.
I pushed my way out onto the Riva and battled along the front. Map in hand, I crossed over the Rio del Vin and took a turn to my left, leaving the crowds behind me. I headed toward Campo San Zaccaria, where legend has it that one Michaelmas the devil appeared, and was about to take hold of a young bride and cart her off to hell when her husband scared him away by roaring like the lion of St. Mark. I didn't know whether it was true, but I had read that each year young men came to the square to reenact the ritual in an attempt to guarantee the constancy of their future wives. I thought about Eliza back in London. I pictured her in bed with Kirkby. He had a broken arm, and I imagined him fucking her with his sling held close to his chest as if he were nursing a newborn baby.
I pushed open the wooden door of the church and stepped inside the darkened, cool interior. An elderly woman, head bent, eyes closed, kneeling beside a pew, mouthed a prayer to herself. Her paper-thin eyelids fluttered and twitched as if she had just stumbled from her bed, still dreaming. I walked around and stopped in front of Bellini's Sacra Conversazione, or, as it was sometimes called, Madonna and Four Saints. While I was studying for my art history degree I had often gazed at this altarpiece in my textbooks. Now I took out a coin and placed it in the slot. Artificial light flooded the painting, illuminating the angel playing a stringed instrument at the feet of the enthroned Virgin and the infant Jesus, his little palm raised to bless the four saints below him. There was St. Peter with his keys and book, St. Catherine with the broken wheel, the scholar St. Jerome swathed in red, holding another thick book, and St. Lucy with a little jar that was supposed to contain her eyes, wrenched from their sockets by Diocletian. I imagined the little globes bobbing about in salty water, pupils dilating in confusion and fear.
When the light timed out, I walked past the altar that was said to contain the body of St. Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist, and down the right aisle toward the chapel of St. Athanasius. A man wearing large, dark glasses bluebottle like sat behind a desk. In Italian, I asked how much it would be to enter, but he did not reply; instead he gestured toward a sign that informed me that the fee was one euro. I gave him a coin and he waved me by. Ranged around the walls, above the fifteenth-century choir stalls, were a number of paintings, including a depiction of the birth of St. John the Baptist, an early work by Tintoretto; a scene of David with the head of Goliath by Jacopo Palma the younger; and, above the door, an image of a martyr being tortured, the saint's eyes gouged out by a man holding what appeared to be a poker.
I wandered into the next chapel and admired the golden altarpieces by Vivarini and d'Alemagna and the frescoes of the Florentine artist Andrea del Castagno. Through a glass square in the floor I saw, at a lower level, some mosaics that had survived from the ninth century, and, walking down some stairs, I came to the crypt, now flooded by a couple of inches of water. The dank-smelling space, with its series of columns and arches reflected in the water below, felt oppressive, claustrophobic. I had to get out. I traced my steps through the chapels back to the main church and down the central aisle toward the front door.
I stopped for an espresso and studied my guidebook. I wanted to see St. Mark's and the Palazzo Ducale, but I couldn't face the crowds that gathered around the piazza so I decided to walk across to the Accademia. I took a series of backstreets, away from the main thoroughfares, down calles so narrow they never saw the sun, before I finally emerged near Campo Santo Stefano. I crossed the Accademia Bridge, pausing to take in the view of the Grand Canal, but as I came down the steps I saw a long queue curling its way out of the gallery's door. I didn't want to wait and couldn't bear the thought of standing near all those people, so I opted to go to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, another of the churches I had studied in my course, which was situated in San Polo, just to the north. As I walked through Campo Santa Margherita, I smelt the delicious aroma of frying garlic, fresh tomatoes and chopped basil. I checked my watch. It was nearly one o'clock time for lunch. I sat down at an outside table of one of the cafés in the square, and after a cheap meal of spaghetti al pomodoro, I looked around me, relishing every detail. Two small boys squealed with delight as they played football in the square, the sound of the ball hitting the ground, an exact echo of my heartbeat. Housewives chatted with men in aprons selling octopus, prawns, spider crabs and fish from a series of canopied stalls. Young couples strolled hand in hand, feeding each other extravagantly colored ice cream, their lips mixing the flavors when they kissed. Everything seemed so alive, so new. And I could be part of it.
I had another coffee, paid my bill and made my way to the Frari. Inside the enormous, T-shaped church I heard the whisper of shoes across the marble floor and the muted murmur of a tour guide in the distance. I walked past the neoclassical monument to Canova, a pyramidal structure that contains the sculptor's heart, to Titian's Ca' Pesaro Madonna, a portrait of Jacopo Pesaro waiting to be presented to the Virgin and child. The image, I had been taught, had revolutionized altar painting in Venice because of the artist's decision to shift the Virgin from the traditional central position over to one side and also because of its humanity, the way Titian had invested the figures with a tender reality. As I studied the painting, moving back and forth to admire the rich blue of St. Peter's robes and the harmonious nature of the composition, I felt unnerved by the image of a boy dressed in white satin situated at the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. No matter where I moved, the curious, accusatory eyes of the youth followed me, as if to tell me not to forget that one day, like him, I would be dead. Although I tried to appreciate Titian's other masterpiece, Assumption of the Virgin, that dominated the high altar and the rest of the church's treasures, tombs and monuments, I couldn't concentrate. The face of that boy wouldn't leave me.
Just after three o'clock, I started to make my way to the Gondolinis'. I walked down to the San Toma vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal and pushed my way onto a crowded water bus. I fought my way to the back of the boat and, just after the Accademia, I managed to find a seat at the stern. Sunlight turned the water to mercury and cast the buildings in a dreamlike hue. As the boat sailed away from the San Zaccaria stop, in the glass panels of the doors that separated the outside seating area from inside, I saw the reflected images of the Campanile and the dome of Santa Maria della Salute. The motion of the boat was beginning to make me feel a little nauseous, and as I stepped onto terra firma at Arsenale, I felt as though I was still on water.
I had been told that the family had a series of rooms in a renovated warehouse building just around the corner from the Corderia, the former rope factory. As I approached my new neighborhood, I noticed that the number of tourists started to decrease. I looked at my map to check the exact location of the street and then walked until I found the home of the Gondolinis, an enormous redbrick structure that overlooked a small canal. I pressed a buzzer and waited. There was no answer. I pressed again. Still nothing. I searched through my bag to find the email from Niccolò Gondolini. It was the right address. Perhaps the family was out. I held my finger on the buzzer and then pressed it a couple of times again in quick succession. There was a click and the door opened.
The staircase was dark. I reached out to find a light switch. As I did so, a man's voice echoed from above.
"Adam Woods? Is that you, Adam? We are...up here."
Niccolò Gondolini, I assumed. Perhaps he had been in the bath or on the telephone.
I climbed the wooden steps, occasionally stopping to feel my way along the wall until my eyes adjusted to the gloom. As I reached the second floor I saw a door that had been left open. I paused for a moment before stepping in. A man with his back to me stood by a far window, his form surrounded by blindingly bright light. I shielded my eyes from the glare.
Before I could say anything, I heard the click of high heels on marble behind me. I turned around to face a woman. Everything about her was doll-like, petite and perfect. She was middle-aged, but her alabaster face was curiously free of lines.
"Adam, I am...pleased that...you have come," she said. Her English was heavily accented, and she pronounced the words as if she were trying to navigate her way across a stretch of slippery stepping stones. "Niccolò is pleased, also, that you have come."
As we shook hands, she gestured to her husband, the man by the window. He turned and walked toward me. Like his wife, Niccolò Gondolini was immaculately presented, but deeply tanned with oil-black hair swept off his forehead. On his wrist he wore a chunky watch, its face circled by diamonds.
"Please, this way," he said, gesturing toward a room off the hallway. He frowned, perhaps because he was not comfortable speaking English. I told them that I understood basic Italian and that if they spoke slowly I would be able to follow them. From then on they spoke in their own language.
The three of us entered a white cube of a room. The only furniture was a low-lying, gray sofa and one high-backed chair. The walls were completely free of paintings and bookcases.
"You can sit here," said Signor Gondolini, pointing toward the sofa. His wife smiled reassuringly at me, but I could tell there was something wrong. Niccolò looked down at the floor.
"I'm afraid we have...something...of a...a...a difficulty," said Signor Gondolini.
"Yes," said his wife. "It's best we get straight to the point: it seems that we cannot offer you a job after all, Mr. Woods."
"I'm sorry?" I said.
Signora Gondolini turned toward her husband, expecting him to provide an explanation. He wouldn't meet my eyes.
"What is the problem?" I asked.
The man remained silent.
"It's like this," said his wife. "It's rather how shall I put it? embarrassing. Everything was ready for you and Antonio; well, he was really looking forward to you coming here. But then we discovered something. It's a little...delicate."
There was another pause as they looked at one another. Niccolò seemed to nod in her direction as if giving his wife permission to carry on.
"It seems our son has done something rather stupid," she continued. "Late last night we received a call from the husband of our maid. As soon as I picked up the phone, he started shouting and screaming. I told him to calm down, to slow down. He was calling Antonio all these names filthy, dirty names that I don't need to repeat to you. But he said that...that Antonio had been seeing his daughter, Isola. That morning she hadn't gotten out of bed. Her mother went in to see what was wrong. She was crying, you see. At first she refused to tell her what was wrong. But then she blurted it out she is pregnant. Pregnant with what she said is Antonio's child."
Her voice dropped down to a whisper, so I had to lean a little closer to her. She smelt faintly of honeysuckle.
"Adam, she is only fourteen years old and "
"So you can imagine what we did," Niccolò interrupted. "We questioned him, asked him whether it was true. Yes, he had been with Isola, they had had...some kind of relations. Finally he said that he would stand by her a ridiculous idea. The stupid boy! He is just sixteen. His life is ahead of him. A nonsense!"
"There was a real commotion you can imagine, Adam, can't you?" said his wife. "But there was no way we could allow him to throw his life away. So this morning we arranged for him to fly to New York to stay with my sister. It's all still rather messy with Isola's parents, of course God only knows, it's going to be impossible to carry on employing Maria but we'll have to sort something out. But I'm afraid that's really no good for you, is it?"
My new world had just collapsed and anger coursed through me, but I found myself nodding sympathetically. "Of course it can't be helped," I said. "I'll find something else. Like you say, you had to do what was best for Antonio. And I suppose he can improve his English in New York just as well as if he were stuck here with me."
"I'm pleased that you understand, Adam," she said. "It's so kind of you. Niccolò and I were so worried about what to say to you. We felt so responsible."
Niccolò's large hand reached inside his jacket and pulled out his wallet. "We will pay you your first month that's the least we can do," he said. "And if there's anything else you need, just let us know."
I took the three hundred euros. I knew that wouldn't get me very far, but I smiled anyway and thanked him.
"What will you do?" asked Signora Gondolini. "Will you go back to London? We could also pay your flight, don't you think, Niccolò?"
"Sì, sì, of course," he replied. "Have a little holiday and then just tell us when you are ready. We'll get the ticket for you."
But what had Britain to offer? A broken relationship and the prospect of a summer at home with my parents in Hertfordshire. And I had to write my novel. When I had told my father of my ambitions to write, he had just sneered at me. No, I had to stay.
"I think I'll stick around in Venice a little while," I said. "I suppose I'll try and find another job. I'm not in the mood to go back home just yet and "
Signora Gondolini jumped up from the chair, her perfect black bob swinging around her face as she did so. As she spoke, her tiny hands flapped in the air like a pair of butterflies. "Niccolò Niccolò ," she said with delight. "I've got it!"
"Cosa?" Her husband looked at her with slight irritation.
"The perfect job for Adam," she said, turning toward me. "I can't believe I didn't think of it before." She took a couple of breaths and started again. "You remember the old English gentleman Maria used to do errands for?"
Her husband looked at her blankly.
"You know the one who never goes out. The writer what is he called? Gordon, Gordon...Crace. That's it. The one who wrote that book years ago and then nothing."
I could see that Niccolò still didn't really understand what his excitable wife was twittering about and that as far as he was concerned, he had fulfilled his side of the bargain. He was a rich man who had eased his conscience by paying me and offering me a flight. Now he just wanted to get rid of me. No doubt my shabbiness was beginning to annoy him in his elegant surroundings.
"Have we ever met him?" he asked.
"No I told you, he hasn't been out for years," she replied. "But Maria had said that he's getting a little...old...and needs a companion. Someone who will get his shopping, do the odd errand for him, tidy the place up. Is that something you might do, Adam?"
To be honest, anything that would let me stay in Venice would have appealed, and I was intrigued.
"Yes, of course. That sounds great," I said.
But then her expression changed.
"Is there a problem?" I asked.
"Well, there could be," she said. "The best way to get hold of him would, of course, be through Maria. But now it's a little awkward between us. She's not so friendly to us, as you can imagine, and I doubt she'll come back."
"Yes, I see."
"But I'll give you his address. Maria wrote it down for me once as a reference, although do you remember if we ever received a reply?"
Niccolò shook his head.
"Maybe you should write to him anyway. I don't think he has a telephone."
She walked across the room and into the hallway and came back with a piece of paper and a fountain pen. Ink flowed onto the blank sheet in great big loops. She passed it to me and I read the address. Palazzo Pellico, Calle delle Celle. I must have looked confused because the next thing I knew, Signora Gondolini took out a map.
"Let's see if we can find it for you," she said.
Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I was convinced that as her finger moved over the map, it traced the form of a question mark across the city.
I couldn't bear to check back into that dive of a hotel, so, on the Gondolinis' recommendation, I walked to a cheap but clean pensione in Castello. They had a room nothing special, but at least I didn't feel as though my skin was creeping off me. After unpacking, I asked for a sheet of writing paper and an envelope and, in the small bar, I wrote a letter asking the reclusive Gordon Crace for a job.
Before leaving the Gondolinis', the Signora had filled me in on his short-lived but nevertheless quite spectacular literary career. His first and only novel, The Debating Society, published in the sixties, was a sensation. It had been greeted with enormous critical acclaim and translated into all the major languages. His publishers and readers all around the world had waited for another book he was nothing less than una stella, she said but he had never produced, or at least never published, another novel. Apparently, with the money from the film rights Crace was rich enough never to need to write again, but for someone of such passion, of such drive, it was strange never to want to see your name in print again. Perhaps he had nothing else to write about, she surmised. Maybe he was burned out. Or could it have something to do with affairs of the heart? Signora Gondolini's black eyes twinkled as she said this; her husband turned his head and pretended not to hear.
I had already heard enough to be intrigued. In the letter I told him how I had heard about the job and went on to outline my background my degree in art history at London University (results pending), a basic grounding in Italian, and a need to stay for at least three to six months so I could start writing my novel. I said that although I liked to think I could be good company, noting what Signora Gondolini had told me about Crace, I also added that I appreciated silence and the need for privacy. It wasn't a masterpiece of a letter by any means, but it was succinct and, I hoped, without pretension. I folded it carefully, eased it into the envelope and sealed it. I wrote the address of the hotel on the back and checked my map. Crace's palazzo was only a ten- or fifteen-minute walk away. I decided that instead of posting it, I'd deliver the letter personally. I gathered my things together and walked out into the night.
Although teeming with tourists during the day, when the sun dipped over the lagoon, Venice transformed itself into another city altogether. As I wandered down unmarked streets, catching fragments of the moon's reflection in the waters, I felt myself slipping away. I had no thoughts about finding a job, Eliza or the situation back home. No one knew me here and I was free.
I walked through Campo Santa Maria Formosa, where the Virgin, in a shapely guise, was supposed to have appeared to St. Magnus, past the church built in her name, and carried on down one of the calles off the square. I wandered around the tangle of alleyways that all seemed to lead down to the same dark canal, but I still couldn't find the address. Then, near the Calle degli Orbi, I passed a narrow passageway that didn't seem to have a name.
At the end of the gloomy alleyway, I came to a slightly wider calle Calle delle Celle, "the street of the cells" at the bottom of which stood Crace's palazzo. The only entrance was a tiny bridge that ran from the street over the water to an imposing doorway that was illuminated by an outside light. Behind the door it looked as though there was a courtyard. Running down the center of the large, three-story, perfectly symmetrical building, like a spine of a long-dead monster, was a series of arched windows, four on each level, the extrados sculpted out of white marble. In one of the rooms on the first floor, candles flickered, illuminating patches of the darkened interior and casting strange shadows onto the ceiling. There was no sound except for the gentle lapping of the water.
I took the envelope out of my bag and walked as quietly as possible across the bridge. The letter box was on the left side of the door, carved into the marble gate in the shape of a dragon's head. As I pushed the letter into the creature's mouth, my hand brushing against its worn-down teeth, I stepped into a circle of light. Back over the bridge, I looked up once more to see a shadow crossing the room before melting into the dark.
Copyright © 2007 by Andrew Wilson
Meet the Author
Andrew Wilson is an award-winning journalist and author. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Independent on Sunday, the Daily Mail, the New Statesman, the Evening Standard magazine and the Smithsonian.
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