"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" was such a worthy contribution to the non-fiction genre presided over by Capote's "In Cold Blood" that I cannot now explain why I was so luke-warm about the news of Berendt's latest work.
I think I was put off because I thought "The City of Falling Angels" would be something of an art history of Venice. I was also wary about the fact it had been ten years' in production. The same is true of "Something Happened", Joseph Heller's second novel. And, in Heller's case, the fact that the book had been assembled so painstakingly letter-by-letter over such a long period really showed to the detriment of the prose.
I accept that, with such a low level of expectation, I was hardly likely to be disappointed, but I quickly realised that the book was just brilliant, evoking not only memories of "Midnight" but, more interestingly, the realisation that the Berendt style is unique amongst the many hundreds of different books read in the ten years between the two, being part travelogue, part social history, part biography and part non-fiction crime.
Berendt is capable of unearthing the scent of intrigue from the most innocuous of encounters. His unique talent thereafter is to follow that scent to a conclusion whether that be by way of his personal charm (very few seem to decline his requests for interview) or his considerable forensic powers of analysis. And, thanks to his narrative gifts, he is able to generate real suspense in the leads he has running.
In whatever context he meets the various characters of Venice he avoids any commentary letting the words (quoted faithfully) and actions of each speak for themselves and yet by his presentation of the evidence of such encounters he is able get his point across with subtlety.
And he meets famous characters from the past too: Ezra Pound spent a great deal of his own life in Venice. Berendt explores his connections with the city and comments on his literary legacy. He unearths a letter from Pound to his (then-teenage) daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz and, as it contains his advice on creative writing, sets it out in full (p196). Of course, Brendt's own prose measures up and it serves as yet another proof that the reader is in the hands of a real professional.
I accept there is some art history of Venice in there, but it is well-presented and I have to accept that it even enhanced his tales.