In 1994, an Esquire writer named John Berendt gripped readers with this opening line in his first book: "He was tall, about fifty, with...

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“The City of Falling Angels”
by John Berendt
Penguin Press, 414 pp., $25.95

In 1994, an Esquire writer named John Berendt gripped readers with this opening line in his first book: “He was tall, about fifty, with … eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine — he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.”

That description of Jim Williams, the main character in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” — a book that remained on The New York Times best-seller list for an astonishing four years — instantly drew readers into the dark world of Williams, a wealthy accused murderer, and the eccentric characters surrounding him in the gothic, moss-draped town of Savannah, Ga.

Berendt’s instincts for finding fascinating characters, and his ability to shine light on the mostly hidden corners of small-town life, gave “Good and Evil” a novel-like readability — part true-crime account, part twisted travelogue.

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It’s worth remembering the accomplishment of that book when turning to Berendt’s second, 10-years-in-the-making followup, “The City of Falling Angels.” Berendt tries to apply the same approach: hanging out in a city — in this case, Venice — and painting portraits of its offbeat inhabitants, meanwhile ostensibly focusing on a true-crime event.

Coming up

John Berendt

The author of “The City of Falling Angels” will read at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Seattle’s Town Hall. Sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600;

While Berendt’s ability to paint vivid descriptions is given ample room to blossom in “Angels,” unfortunately, the book can’t hold a Venetian chandelier to the compulsively readable “Good and Evil.”

For one thing, his choice of Venice is odd. Writers from Shakespeare to Henry James and George Sand have written about its charms and dramas for centuries. Savannah, much smaller and more insular, was a more inspired choice because it had not been explored so exhaustively. Even someone as talented as Berendt has a hard time finding much new to say about the fading beauty of one of Europe’s most storied cities.

More problematically, “The City of Falling Angels” is a book in desperate search of a center. The main tale of the book is the loss by fire of Venice’s gloriously baroque opera house, the Fenice, where five of Verdi’s operas premiered. Berendt arrives in Venice just three days after the fire, in 1996, and decides to structure his portrait of the city around the fire and its investigation.

But the fire, whether caused by arson or neglect, with no central magnetic character behind it, just isn’t that interesting. Sometimes crime is just banal, even when it happens with a spectacular backdrop like Venice.

One gets the feeling Berendt is trying too hard, with dramatic pronouncements that are never quite borne out. Early in the book, for instance, as debate rages over how fire could have leveled such a beloved landmark, Berendt points out that neither of Venice’s two “major evils” — its rising sea level and the influx of tourists — could have been to blame for the fire: “This time, Venice had only itself to blame.” For a while, the reader keeps expecting payoff for such foreshadowing, but sadly, there isn’t any.

Berendt does provide some finely observed snapshots of some of the city’s characters, including the feuding family of master glassblowers, and the local poet whose bizarre suicide prompts much speculation and finger-pointing among Venetians who knew him. But one gets the sense that Berendt just collected anecdotes and tried to arrange them into the winning formula of his previous book. Dozens of pages are spent on the less-than-engaging Americans with ties to Venice, including an older woman who dresses all in white — “from headband to shoes. Even her glasses had white frames, and her hair was white as well.” Later, there’s an actual conversation about this same woman, a fourth-generation ex-pat:

“That has to be Patricia Curtis,” Rose Lauritzen said later on. “She always wears white.”

“Always?” I asked. “Why?”

“I really don’t know. She’s worn white as long as I’ve known her. Peter, why does Patricia wear white?”

“I haven’t any idea,” said Peter.

“White may just be her color,” said Rose. “It’s probably as simple as that.” Yes, probably. So what? Needless to say, Patricia Curtis is no Jim Williams — or even Lady Chablis.

Berendt is a gifted observer, but just because he chooses to observe something doesn’t mean anyone else wants to hear about it. Next time let’s hope he goes back off the beaten path, where he can shine his piercing light onto something less familiar, and more compelling.

Anne Hurley: