Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Importance of Place: Guest Post by Larry Maness

Larry Maness:
The Importance of Place

Over the years, my wife, Marianne, and I have traveled in Italy from Turin in the north to Salerno in the south staying anywhere from a few days to 6 months in cities and towns like Rome, Florence, Siena, Modena, Bologna, Venice and the tiny hilltop town of Civezza where I based my fifth novel, The Last Perdoux.

An 800-year-old village along what is known as the Italian Riveria, Civezza was built on top of the eastern edge of the Maritime Apennines halfway between Genoa and Nice. With its expansive view of the Medeterrian, early settlers built four, stone, lookout towers, two at each end of the village, to spot any invading ships. Now, with a population of only 348 mostly elderly and self-sufficient Italians, the towers are gone, and the view is terraced olive trees and small vineyards with a narrow tarmac road carrying the twice-daily bus from Porto Maurizio through dangerous hairpin turns.

A dot on a map, Civezza appears unremarkable. Having spent nearly four months there drafting The Last Perdoux, I say it was one of the most fascinating experiences in my Italian travels.

Like many small Italian villages, Civezza provides few draws for tourists. At the lower end of the village sits Chiesa San Marco Evangelista, the Catholic church first built in the 1400s, then refurbished in the 1700s. The church bells rang every half-hour, twenty-four hours a day. I will never forget the ringing bells and the waw-waw-waw of the Porto bus signaling its climb up the mountain.

From the church, via Dante, the village’s steep and narrow cobble-stone main street, angles up past attached ochre-colored houses, past a small but functional alimentari where pasta and canned goods were always available as well as the occasional dressed rabbit and chicken. A fountain in the middle of a small piazza with a few outside chairs marks the local cafĂ© where village elders—including Giuseppe, our next door neighbor who sold us his own olive oil and wine-gather for coffee, cigarettes, and talk.

Fresh vegetables required a bus ride down the mountain to the farmer’s market in Porto Maurizio where many shops, newsstands, and trattorias could be found. In distance it wasn’t far, but the bus didn’t always run on time, or when it did, it didn’t always run back to Civezza. Mechanical failure or bus driver strikes often left us shoppers scrambling for a ride up the mountain, carrying bags of long-stemmed artichokes, kale, and local cheeses before they spoiled in the heat. Other than trips to the market, we had little use for a car and never rented one. Besides, via Dante was too narrow for the smallest Italian car to pass. Even motorcycles were risky as the house front doors, our rental included, opened directly onto the narrow street.

We knew much of village life before we signed the lease as our landlady was the friend of one of Marianne’s Cambridge acquaintances. As such, one conversation led to another, and before long we were looking at pictures of a lovely apartment overlooking the Medeterrian with fig, lemon, and orange trees growing in the backyard garden. It was the perfect setting for the novel I had been researching. I was eager to move in and get started writing.

A combination of research and firsthand experiences have shaped my four previously novels. To help me capture the seafaring elements of Nantucket’s history, I drafted Nantucket Revenge, my first Jake Eaton mystery, while living on a boat for three months in Nantucket Harbor. For Strangler, my third Jake Eaton novel based on the Boston Strangler case, I sought out all of the Boston area crime scenes where Albert DeSalvo supposedly strangled his 11 victims. (Strangler makes the case that DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler and later DNA testing proved me right.) For my new novel, The Last Perdoux, I wanted to absorb as much of what living in a small Italian village was like, so that I could write about it with confidence.

In fiction, an author can set his plot in motion most anywhere. The best settings, however, are intriguing for the reader and authentic. I knew I wanted to write a novel that had its genesis in World War II with the Nazi art plunder in France and Italy. I also knew that I did not want to tell a war story or a story about the sins of the German army. I wanted to tell a more personal, human story using the Nazi looting as background. I wanted to tell a small story in a small setting, focusing on the theft of one painting, a stolen Rembrandt in the possession of a ruthless Italian art collector sought out by Theo R. Perdoux whose goal is to return the painting to his family’s collection.

The painting, of course, is discovered hanging in Corso, the name of the novel’s fictional village. Why a priceless painting hangs in a small hilltop town is part of the mystery as is the family relationship between the German officer who looted the painting from the Perdouxs in the first place. The art collector, the looter, and the last Perdoux all meet in Corso to battle for the prize. Here is Theo describing his first look at Corso: “A stone stairway led up to via Dante at such a steep angle that I was breathing hard halfway to the top. I stopped to catch my breath beside a small backyard garden filled with lemon, orange, and fig trees. Giant hedges of pungent rosemary-nearly four feet tall—flanked the stairs. Had I not been on a mission, I would have stopped to drink in the simple beauty of this small piece of heaven.”

The real Civezza is not heaven, but it was the perfect place to set The Last Perdoux.


Larry Maness is the author of the Jake Eaton mystery series, which is being reprinted by Speaking Volumes Publishing starting April, 2020. His new novel, The Last Perdoux, will be published by SVP this fall.

1 comment:

Mary Monnin said...

What a wonderful vision of life in an Italian village. Thanks for letting me escape to Italy, even for a short time. I look forward to reading The Last Perdoux.