Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Abomination That Causes Re-Creation

Jonathan Holt, The Abomination: A Novel

The Adriatic Sea washes a body onto the steps of Venice’s baroque basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. Dressed in clerical robes, the clearly female corpse stirs immediate pious outrage, well before anybody explains the two bullets in her skull. Captain Kat Tapo of the Carabinieri, Italy’s military-run police force, conducting her first murder investigation, quickly discovers that this victim’s casual blasphemy may be her case’s least bizarre aspect.

As an old Oxfordian and professional adman, Jonathan Holt clearly knows how to tease readers with a mix of familiar thriller boilerplates we expect, and surprises that completely sucker-punch us. His plot runs as intricate and labyrinthine as the Venice he describes, revealing layers of crime drama, political intrigue, techno-conspiracy, relatively guy-friendly romance, and highbrow international literature. Yet his pace never flags, immersing readers in a wholly realized, terror-inducing ambience.

Newly arrived at Camp Ederle, Second Lieutenant Holly Boland (US Army) finds herself seconded to low-grade PR grunt-work. But an American journalist brings Holly a FOIA request for Ederle’s records regarding the Bosnian civil war—then promptly vanishes. When Holly’s journalist and Kat’s murder victim prove linked, these very different women discover they’re running largely overlapping investigations. Their link apparently lives in Carnivia, Venice’s intricate, illegal online doppelganger.

Daniele Barbo, last scion of one of Venice’s First Families, faces jail for refusing Italian officials access to Carnivia, his mathematically precise rendering of sloppy, organic Venice. Users worldwide utilize Carnivia’s nigh-uncrackable encryption to conduct business in absolute privacy. This makes NATO nations twitchy, but Daniele, scarred by Red Brigade guerillas during Italy’s post-War power struggles, prizes his privacy above all else. (Note, many female-sounding names are male in Italian.)

But what could the Church, Bosnia, the Mafia, and the Army share with a rogue website? Transnational bureaucracy, Italy’s notorious official corruption, and generations of willful ignorance conspire to keep old secrets buried. Officially forbidden to collaborate, Kat, Holly, and Daniele nevertheless combine to battle the forces striving to preserve callow indifference. Too bad they cannot recognize the insidious, deceptively friendly forces arrayed against them.

Holt utilizes a deft mix of real-world Venetian grandeur and Tom Clancy-ish fictional intrigue to create tension, mystery, and wonder. The Barbo family (largely silent since the Renaissance) and their palace, Ca’ Barbo (actually a tourist hotel), loom large in Holt’s Venice. The ghost-haunted island of Poveglia, Venice’s equivalent to Alcatraz, drives a massive trans-Atlantic conspiracy. This touch of reality makes Holt’s story feel immediate and literal.

Venice lies astride two very different Europes. Narrow stretches of water separate modern, tech-savvy Western Europe from the war-pitted Balkans. Venice’s trackless salt-water marshes and uninhabited islands provide smugglers, human traffickers, and other war profiteers endless opportunities to exploit this gap. Police walk a fine line: they must enforce important international laws while never discouraging their city’s necessary, lucrative tourist industry. Investigations become elaborate PR campaigns.

Our three heroes, however, feel driven by greater goals. When evidence arises that Camp Ederle, and Venice more generally, have dark, convoluted connections to Bosnia’s civil war, and NATO’s changing post-Cold War mission, our heroes undertake a mission that could implicate multiple first-world leaders in war crimes, systematic oppression, and much worse. Too bad our heroes’ actions are steered by insidious forces whose fingerprints they cannot see.

Holt’s writing incorporates the massive, multinational conspiracies and military intrigue that audiences love in conspiracy thrillers, from Umberto Eco to Dan Brown. He gives his conspiracies a distinctively British touch, however. Sometimes this exposes mild provincialism: it’s often unintentionally hilarious to see Commonwealth writers attempting to mimic American military argot. Primarily, though, Holt’s Crumbled Empire lens gives readers a distinct view on overseas adventurism, imperial grabbiness, and their corrosive consequences.

Many similar novels debut yearly; most bog down in abstruse technical details, moralistic lectures, or other insidious authorial bear traps. Holt avoids this tendency by treating situations with immersive sensory detail. From explanatory dialogs and romantic encounters to chase scenes and fistfights, Holt maintains pace with taut cinematic flair. This novel demands a big-screen adaptation by Danny Boyle, ideally starring Kate Beckinsale and Anna Torv. (Forgive my self-indulgence there.)

This novel combines the international atmospherics of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels with the rococo intricacy of Neal Stephenson’s best technothrillers. Holt successfully balances his characters unpacking convoluted secrets with the audience’s need for forward momentum. And, though Holt utilizes familiar thriller conventions, his story never feels predictable or ordinary. Amid the mess of paperback potboilers published constantly anymore, Jonathan Holt resists obvious choices, and that’s why he wins.

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