Venice is so beholden to its past that it's hard to think of the city in the present tense. The buildings look much the same as they did when Napoleon decided to make the one-time heart of a sprawling empire his own in 1797. The streets have never known cars, and the sound of motorized water-taxis doesn't even come close to the noise of any other modern city. Venice's economy is bound to the tourist trade, and even its lifelong residents cater, in one way or another, to the tromping, gawking foreigners who show up the majesty that was. But life does go on in contemporary Venice, as Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil author John Berendt discovered when he set up shop there in 1996 following the blaze that destroyed the La Fenice Opera House. Still, finding it requires going off the beaten track.
The Fenice fire provides the framework for The City Of Falling Angels, but without digressions, it would be a pretty slim book. Between interviewing those involved with the Fenice investigation, Berendt seeks out other Venetians with potentially interesting stories, and he finds plenty of them. For instance, the Segusos, master glass-blowers whose dispute over the family business involves, among other intrigues, one brother copyrighting his surname and attempting to have his father declared mentally incompetent. ("That was a purely legal maneuver," the son claims.) Elsewhere, Berendt finds Ezra Pound's aged ex-lover involved in a drama eerily reminiscent of Henry James' Venice-set The Aspern Papers, as well as an American-based organization dedicated to saving Venice landmarks, though it can't quite save itself.
It's all thinly connected, but patterns emerge. As the Fenice fire is declared first an accident, then arson, and the case against the prime suspects starts to point to a bigger mystery, it becomes clear that, in Berendt's experience at least, Venice is seldom as it presents itself. There are stories behind every door, and a twist or two to each story. It's questionable to what degree Berendt sought out examples that contributed to the bigger picture, and the sense that his conclusions are predetermined is only enhanced by the precise, novel-like dialogue. But the story of Berendt's Venice tenure is no less compelling for it. His is a Venice forever destroying itself to re-emerge unchanged. Public drama and explosive secrets are its birthright.