Christopher Bollen’s ‘A Beautiful Crime’ Is A Riveting Ride Through Pre-Pandemic Venice

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When A Beautiful Crime was originally released last January, author Christopher Bollen couldn’t have known that the setting of his love letter to Venice and Patricia Highsmith would irrevocably change with the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Interview Magazine, where Bollen is Editor-at-Large said, “In the novel, two men also take advantage of a Venetian mansion — this time an actual palazzo in Venice — and leverage its ancient artifacts and history for profit. Unlike the Gardner heist, there’s a gay love tryst, a murder, and an Airbnb crisis that’s sinking a city underwater. In an age when con artists like Anna Delvey and Billy McFarland are becoming swindling sensations, I spoke with Bollen about his new novel, the glamour of the grifter narrative, and America’s fascination with con culture.”

#GAYNRD spoke to Bollen following the release of the novel in paperback recently.

So I can’t help but think about how Venice, as the primary locale, with everything that’s happened since the book was released last January, was one of the most profoundly places in the world impacted by sheltering in place, self isolating, and quarantine efforts. How did you feel as the author and do you think it would change the plot if you were to have moved it forward a year in any way? Certainly hysterical tourism is a backdrop of A Beautiful Crime. Ironically, the romantic in me, wanted to write a novel set in Venice where your eye wasn’t constantly running over the gravel of tourists every time you stare out at a canal or wander around a church. But not writing about tourists in Venice would be not writing about office workers in midtown or sunbathers on a beach South Beach. It’s part of the reality of the place. It would be a fantasy to erase tourists from vista and pretend Venice is some out of the way Italian village in the north. This really has been the history of Venice for centuries.

Henry James said that even if you haven’t been to Venice you’ve been to Venice, because you’ve seen it represented a million times in paintings and photographs and stories. That proved a challenge for me in trying to bring it to life in an original way. But, you asked about Venice as it currently is, far less crowded. What a dream. I wish I could visit right now. I was supposed to do a residency there this past winter but it was cancelled. I’m sure it would have massively changed the story. Very different mask shops would have filled the streets. It must be exceptionally beautiful to wander around Venice without a cruise ship in sight. I would like to say that perhaps Venetians will realize what they have and put limits on tourism in the future, but I’m skeptical. Alas, I don’t feel that ghost-town Venice will be a permanent condition. But one of the themes of the novel is, why don’t we try to save these sacred places on the earth while we still can? How can we just watch this city sink? Well, we know the answer. We are very short-sighted creatures. We are convenient romantics. We are major regretters.

Both A Beautiful Crime and your last novel, 2017’s The Destroyers both were set in very famous popular global locales (Venice and the island of Patmos in Greece respectively). How much of that was intentional That reflects my love of travel. It really is the place I find most inspiration to write. (As this pandemic has taught me). I feel most engaged and excited about writing when I’m far away from home—and my desk. I wish I could be Emily Dickinson and never need to find inspiration more than a block from my house but I do. So The Destroyers, set on the Greek island of Patmos, and A Beautiful Crime, really are born out of my obsession with travel. The novel I’d written before those, Orient, set in an isolated village on Long Island, was very much a domestic mystery. And then I just wanted to go the opposite direction. I love when characters are cut loose from their usual safety nets. I love when they don’t know where the police station is or how to speak the language. I love that freedom of not being recognized in the street. It makes it very exciting as a writer. We have so many domestic novels—because writers tend to be homebodies. But I’m part wanderer, so that’s the part I’m currently exploring in my work. But Venice, let me just say, is a very special place to me. It’s the first place outside of the country I ever lived.

I got an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim when I was 23, right out of college, and I lived in that magical city for the summer of 1999. It changed my life.

The two lead characters, Clay and Nick, are in an interracial gay relationship and you have a wonderfully fleshed out back story for him Clay who is Black. Did you encounter any criticism about representation vis a vis “authentic experiences,” and generally do you have thoughts about the vocal proponents  who would level this criticism? When Gore Vidal wrote his landmark gay novel The City and the Pillar (1948) he set out to write the love story of “two normal all-American boys.”

For him, living in post-War America, that meant two white men. But when I assigned myself a similar task for A Beautiful Crime, I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — pick two middle-class white men. Because that’s not representative of the queer culture that I know. If you want to read that book, Gore Vidal and others have already supplied it. I wanted to write about a slice of gay culture rooted in the here and now and that obligated me to bring other voices, races, perspectives, histories, and sexual and gender identities into the novel. Was it a risk? Yes, of course, and it wasn’t a portrayal I took lightly. I know how painful it is to read yet another misrepresentation of one’s own identity. But I don’t feel that the project of novel as a container of experiences and perspectives beyond the author’s own demographic should be abandoned.

I can say that I was extremely careful every morning I set out to write about Clay, and each sentence I wrote very much kept your question in mind. Is it perfect? Probably not. Novels aren’t perfect machines. But Clay, like all of us, isn’t just a demographic study. He’s his own person, filled with faults and loves and virtues, on the page. My solution was to address directly the racism inherent even in these supposedly liberal bastions of bohemianism. That’s one of the provocations of the novel: Nick slides by on his charm and everyone presumes he has the best of intentions, a privilege that Clay is not afforded.

In the end though, I wanted this novel to have more representation and not less. Despite it being set in Venice and dealing with antique silver, I wanted it to be a child of the 21st Century and not the 20th.

I sometimes feel like gay writers, at least of my generation, are actually well positioned to handle this project of inclusions. We were marginalized as children, felt like outsiders in our own homes, were forced to camouflage our own identities and wear the fictions of another: that’s a sad lot but it’s a great training ground for being able to get outside of your own perspective.

I hope A Beautiful Crime reflects the queer community beyond a good-looking white dude con-artist from Ohio. Or at least I hope it shows the struggle and complexity of that idea of a collective queer community outside the norms.

That’s the “crime” in the novel, queer love.