Title: Murder Most Serene
Author: Gabrielle Wittkop
Translator: Louise Rogers Lalaurie
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 939663 14 6
Murder Most Serene is a study in contrasts. It is a tale of two cities, one above and one below, during the month and years preceding Napoleon’s invasion of the then Republic of Venice. The inhabitants, fully cognizant that history is catching up to them, distract themselves with frenetic celebrations and debauchery. Venice is an empire staring down its final days – like a garishly made-up prostitute at the end of a long night staring silently at her reflection, powder caked and lipstick smeared, in the mirror.
In Venice, everything is different. Different from what, if not Venice?… A city that shows only one-half of herself, held aloft on millions of felled trees, upon the forests of Istria, the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies, chain-bound oaks, hooped in iron, held motionless in the sand for all ages, doubly dead, etiolated corpses encrusted with lime, dead mussels, putrefied seaweed, swathed in nameless debris, decomposed rags and bones. A twin city beneath the city, inverse replica of its palaces and domes, its canals metamorphosed into the skies of Hades, a response but not a reflection, for this is the city of darkness, the city whose skies are forever black, the city below, on the other side.
As Venetian society whirls through candlelit ballrooms they whisper about the trials and tribulations of Count Alvise Lanzi, a hapless Bluebeard, who can’t seem to keep a wife alive. His brides’ untimely ends – punctuated by black bile, violent spasms and agonizing pain – blend together into one macabre death scene which plays across the entire novella. Alleviated only by occasional digressions into the candlelit glamour of Venetian society, the narrative bounces back and forth between an omniscient (if somewhat reticent) narrator describing the evils as they befall the Lanzi brides and a delightfully gossipy correspondent writing to his or her “dear Siren” about all that is happening in the city.
The wives, of course, are being murdered. A seasoned mystery reader will suspect by whom very early on, but that isn’t the point. The prose is the star of this dark little book. When Wittkop introduces Felicita and Teresa, two sisters destined to follow Lanzi to the altar and each other to the grave, they are pretty little dolls frozen in a miniature diorama.
Felicita is a tall girl with a pure, olive complexion, capable of playing the harp and turning a compliment in Latin. People say she has an austere temperament. Teresa is quite as tall and slender, but of a paler hue. She plays the harpsichord and loves nothing so much as to shine, and shine…
In just four sentences Wittcop conjures the two young ladies – one regal and serene, the other vibrant and effervescent. But the glamour is fleeting and this image is quickly replaced with another. Death, when it comes, is not pretty or charming.
The room, near the kitchens at the back of the Mendicanti, is grayish white like a wall eye. To counter the smell, the pathologists don the old beaked mask once worn by doctors purporting to treat sufferers of the plague. Beside the table, a valet holds the flaming torches. The stench of butchery again, as at the birth. A fly – a fat blue gem covered in fine, downy hair – wanders across Felicita’s face.
Back and forth, back and forth Wittkop drags her readers. And, despite ourselves, we enjoy every minute of it. Like her previous novella, The Necrophiliac, the darker and more depraved the story gets the more playful the prose becomes. Much of this little novella’s perfection comes from the cinematic handling of the imagery – cut scenes, close-ups and pan shots, fade ins & outs – it’s very easy to imagine a Tim Burton screen adaptation of Murder Most Serene inspired by 16th century still-life paintings (imagine exquisitely painted depictions of skulls, dead animals and rotting food). The archness of the prose belies the unsavory nature of what it describes. Like the white-eyed, too wide smile of Anne Hathaway’s powdered sugar portrayal of Carroll’s White Queen which leaves the audience unsure of whether she’s going to stroke or snap the fluffy white kitten’s neck, murder has never appeared so charming.
Murder Most Serene was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s author, Gabrielle Wittkop, liked to refer to herself as the heir to the Marquis de Sade. And Murder Most Serene is a book de Sade would have delighted in. A woman of strong principles and beliefs, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002 when she learned she had lung cancer, preferring to meet death on her own terms.