MARCH 11, 2020
IN A SURPRISINGLY indirect way, Christopher Bollen’s novel A Beautiful Crime reminds me of one of my favorite books, the posthumously published A Happy Death by Albert Camus. Early in the novel, Camus’s character Meursault (yes, he has the same name as The Stranger’s protagonist) meets a wealthy but sick man who implies an offer: kill me, and you can have all my money. Free from the necessity of making a living, Meursault can then pursue a happy life of travel and pleasure, so that he can have a happy death. Yet after he commits the murder, he’s plagued by restlessness and dissatisfaction. Through the story, Camus presents this dilemma: What moral boundaries would you cross in order to get enough money to never have to work again for the rest of your life? What crimes would you commit? Fraud? Theft? Prostitution? Murder? In A Beautiful Crime, Bollen’s 25-year-old main character Nick Brink commits them all.
Comparisons can provide context, but they only go so far. A Happy Death is literary fiction, while Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime is a crime novel. It’s often assumed that the former is art and the latter isn’t, but anyone who’s read Raymond Chandler knows this isn’t so. As art critic Peter Schjeldahl recently wrote in an essay for The New Yorker, Chandler wisecracks are not only at the level of “Montaigne-grade aphorism,” but also “existential rescues of imperiled self-possession.” Schjeldahl quotes: “A slanting gray rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads.” And: “A few windows were lit and radios were bleating at the dusk.” This is art indeed. But what happens when the art is stripped away? Does the question have the same effect? The answer, in this case, is, unfortunately, no. A Beautiful Crime not only lacks literary artistry, but it also lacks the thrill of a thriller.
Mostly set in Venice, Italy, A Beautiful Crime is essentially a love letter to that city, which Bollen writes is “unarguably the most beautiful city on the planet.” After college, Bollen got an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and wanted to write about the city ever since. It’s clear that A Beautiful Crime is his excuse to do so. The novel’s other main character, Nick’s boyfriend Clay Guillory, also worked as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection after college, and that’s how he meets his much older companion, the impoverished but aristocratic Freddy van der Haar. Freddy owns a slice of a palazzo in Venice, a brownstone in Brooklyn, and a whole lot of debt. He has HIV, and upon his death — which some claim is dubious — Clay inherits it all.
It’s at Freddy’s funeral in New York that Clay meets Nick, who also has a much older companion, Ari, who runs the upscale Wickston Antiques. Nick lives with Ari in the older man’s Upper West Side apartment and works as his assistant at the store. “[M]ost people think that this Clay character killed him to get the money before Freddy could change his mind,” Ari tells Nick. Ari refers to Clay as “a hustler.” And yet despite this aspersion, or perhaps because of it, Nick is irresistibly attracted to Clay. When Clay comes to the antique store to sell several pieces of Freddy’s antique silver, and Ari shows that they’re counterfeits, Nick becomes even more enamored. So much that he devises a scheme for them to become rich and run away together.
So begins A Beautiful Crime’s well-contrived plot. Unlike your usual crime novel, however, this one takes over 100 pages before anything happens. Sure, the opening sentences offer classic noir bait: “Down below the cry of gulls, below floors of tourists undressing and dressing for dinner, below even the shrinking figure of his killer, a man lies crumpled and bleeding. He’s been dead for only a few seconds.” Yet after this alluring setup, we get passively written backstory establishing the characters and their relationships, Nick and Ari, Clay and Freddy, their respective families — all pretty boring. It’s not until about a third of the way in that we meet middle-aged Richard West, and things finally start happening.
West made his money in tech and is now devoted to collection and conservation, particularly of Venice’s art and architecture. “Like most zillionaires,” Bollen writes, “West didn’t want to be remembered for how he’d earned his money but for how he spent it. Many lives might have been ruined in the amassing of his wealth, but now he was bent on uplifting lives by means of culture and taste.” Before meeting Freddy, Clay was West’s assistant in Venice, but when Clay applied for a permanent position at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, West pulled strings so the position went to someone else. Clay and West have been rivals ever since, especially after Clay comes into possession of Freddy’s Venice palazzo, which happens to share walls with West’s.
All of this makes West the perfect target for a swindle, Nick thinks. And here’s his scheme: they’ll pass off Freddy’s counterfeit silver as authentic to West and sell it for nearly one million bucks. They have it all figured out. Nick will coincidentally meet West in Venice and casually let it be known that he’s an expert silver appraiser. Clay, for his part, will casually mention he’s willing to sell Freddy’s antiques. West will never know that Nick and Clay know each other, or that the silver is counterfeit. But the only problem with Bollen’s caper is that one unbelievable thing happens after another. Not just the plot and the characters, but even the language.
For instance, Bollen writes of Nick’s plane ride to Venice, “After nine hours morgued in the same position, he felt it might be beyond his endurance to sit for another ten seconds.” It’s a clever try, using morgue as a verb, but that would imply being absolutely still, and on a nine-hour plane ride, that’s impossible. Similarly, after arriving in Venice, we are told, “In the stranglehold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue.” But glue doesn’t move, and humans do, and so the simile doesn’t work. More importantly, so many plot points are unbelievable. Soon after arriving in Venice, for example, Nick lies to an American family about losing his wallet so that he can hitch a free ride with them on a boat to the city. When he disembarks, a wave hits the boat and Nick stumbles against the pier, causing his wallet to fall from his back pocket and splay on the dock, announcing his lie.
Then of course there’s the character of West himself. Nearly every sentence he speaks ends with an exclamation point. Soon after meeting Nick, West relates a story about another wealthy older man and his much younger male consort: “Smart, yes! And wicked! […] But how fucking unfair! Poor Topper never even got a kiss from the guy. He lost it all and didn’t get one roll in the sheets! Give the man that much for his fortune!” Nobody talks like this. (And if they did, God help us.) But what’s most unbelievable about West is that he would believe that a 25-year-old kid is an expert silver appraiser. Even with Nick’s Wickston Antiques business card and his emulation of Ari’s knowledge, a millionaire like West would never be stupid enough to not seek out a much more experienced appraiser before shelling out nearly $800,000.
Bollen paints West to be blindly greedy for the silver, so greedy and self-delusional that he’s an unsuspecting fool, but he’s actually sharper than Nick and Clay give him credit for. In fact, it’s the two of them who get too greedy. Because once they sell the silver, Nick realizes that after Clay pays off his debts, they will have only a few hundred thousand dollars. And how long will that last them? Three or four years? And so he decides they need millions. The way to get it? Con West again, this time by selling him the rest of Freddy’s palazzo, which Clay only technically half-owns with Freddy’s estranged sister, and so they’ll need to forge documents in order for the sale to go through.
But how did ultra-polite, Midwestern, naïve Nick become such a devious liar, willing to commit a long list of crimes for money he doesn’t need? Even Clay doesn’t believe this character development: “[T]he harder Clay tried to picture his boyfriend in a series of homicidal poses, the more preposterous the enterprise became. Murder was too lonely a place for Nick. There was no way he’d resort to murdering someone over money.” True, there’s no way. And yet.
I’m giving Bollen a hard press, but I’ll admit that by the time the second con is winding down, I was quickly turning the pages — I even let out a few gasps. That is, he hooked me in the end. And underneath the contrived plot and unbelievable characters, he’s actually digging up something worth thinking about: the destruction of over-touristed European cities. Venice is sinking, both literally and figuratively. Because there, like in Barcelona and many other destinations, many residents have decided they can make a living renting their homes on Airbnb and have left for less-attractive places. What’s left is a Disneyland city. Those left have no work options other than serving tourists, essentially becoming extras on a movie set, and their neighbors are rowdy foreigners who stay a few nights partying before moving on. As Bollen writes, “The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”
It’s no coincidence that the novel becomes engaging just as residents march through the streets in protest of this destruction. “Mi non vado via mi resto!” they chant. “I do not go away, I stay!” They carry signs that read: “Venezia non è un parco divertimenti” — “Venice is not an amusement park.” Bollen threads this serious issue throughout A Beautiful Crime, and it’s what ultimately saves the book from being merely a beach read.