Gregory Dowling, The Four Horsemen
Dowling, Gregory. 2017. The Four Horsemen. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 9781250108548.
The positive aspect of overtourism in Italy is that there is plenty of work for tour guides. It has not always been this way, however. In the past, guides known by the mellifluous moniker cicerone, grappled with uncertain markets. Consider Alvise Marangon, astute protagonist of Greg Dowling’s galloping thriller, The Four Horsemen. An eighteenth century Venetian cicerone who assists young Northern European aristocrats on their grand tours, Alvise is always in a race for clients. Moreover he has to harness his talents to the investigative needs of the Missier Grande -- Venice’s police captain -- to retain his guide’s license. In this second installment of Alvise’s adventures (the first, Ascension, appeared in 2016), the cicerone perforce turned part-time spy is put through his paces, first on behalf of the Missier Grande, later by a sense of duty to the Republic herself.
In a city where intrigue and deception are as pervasive as fog, Alvise draws upon his local knowledge, grasp of the Venetian psyche, wits, and a dramatic flair inherited from his English actress mother to make a living. He explains that being a cicerone is a fiercely competitive profession. Clients usually keep him occupied from Mondays to Wednesdays only. Fortunately -- or not -- some of the same qualities that make him a good guide, including his ability to improvise, are indispensable to spies. Alvise supplements his income by performing secret researches for the Missier Grande.
In this erudite thriller Alvise’s two occupations intersect. His description of an encounter with a dodgy fellow who wants him to direct tourists to a particular gaming establishment is the preamble to a tale rich in Crusades history, Greek banditry, and amorous adventures. The Missier Grande tasks Alvise with investigating an oddball teacher’s abrupt demise. Shortly before he died, the deceased’s enthusiasm for many things Byzantine had led him to a salon hosted by a captivating Venetian-Greek noblewoman and seemingly to a secret society known as “The Four Horsemen.” That he lived in fear of the latter Alvise discovers from a diary, written in Greek. The poet Ovid reminded us that horses never run so fast as when they have other horses to outpace. Alvise soon finds himself sprinting after a shadowy Neapolitan with a bad gait. In this case, reaching the finish line first means the difference between life and death, complicated by the fact that the apparent front runners may turn out not even to have been part of the race.
The Four Horsemen is more than an exciting whodunit. Alvise’s experiences, combined with those of other characters, invite reflection on sociological quandaries of identity and belonging. The Most Serene Republic was seething with diversity. Denizens from competing – and defeated -- empires lived side by side. Dowling’s thriller raises questions about who belonged in Venice and on whose say so. Alvise, child of a Venetian father, often found himself characterized as a foresto, a stranger or outsider. He notes, “I was always a Venetian to English acquaintances, and English to Venetian ones.” He claimed the disjunction troubled him little but, for some others, identity and belonging are paramount concerns.
Aficionados of investigative thrillers will relish The Four Horsemen, but it warrants a wider audience. Fans of historical fiction, travel literature, and, of course, Venice, will all enjoy this riveting page-turner brought to them by an exceptional writer.