The City of Falling AngelsI first came across the author John Berendt when I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a heady mix of true-crime and travelogue. At face value the book is about a murder and the trials of the prime suspect but its real triumph is in evoking the characters and environs of Savannah, Georgia, a city in America’s south marinated in its rich and dramatic history and climatic humidity.

Berendt spent a total of eight years flying to and fro to Savannah from his home in New York before he wrote his book and it is exactly that patience that rewards the reader in his second book, The City of Falling Angels. Once again we are embroiled in the intimate life of a city as the story turns around the mystery of a catastrophic fire that destroyed Venice’s historic Fenice opera house in the city’s centre in 1996.

Venice is perhaps the most written about and documented city in the world but few books are able to capture the lives of the city’s inhabitants the way this one does. By chance, Berendt arrived in Venice just three days after the fire at the Fenice with the smell of the inferno still in the air and the locals unable to talk about anything else. It was the brief off-season in the city, a time between New Year and Carnival when Venetians have the run of their city to themselves for a few weeks.

It wasn’t Berendt’s first time in the city, he had visited a dozen times before and found it just as magical and beautiful as the many millions of other visitors the city hosts every year. This time, however, he sensed an opportunity, and renting himself an apartment, he spent a full year in the city, leveraging both his connections and chance encounters to delve as deeply as he could into the city’s layered culture as he pursued the truth about the fire.

From Count Girolamo Marcello, a direct descendant of a number of former rulers of the Venetian city state, to the rat catcher of Treviso, Berendt sketches an engaging cast of characters that bring the city truly to life instead of waxing lyrical about canals, Carnival and palazzos.

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