Painting Death

Painting Death is the sequel to Cara Massimina and Mimi’s Ghost. That said, it was written to stand on its own two feet…

Morris Duckworth has a dark past. Having married and murdered his way into a wealthy Italian family he has long left aside the paperweight and the pillow to become a respected member of Veronese business life. But it’s not enough. Never satisfied with being anything short of the best, he comes up with a plan to put on the most exciting art exhibition of the decade, based on a subject close to his heart: killing. All the great slaughters of scripture and classical times will be on show, from Cain and Abel, to Brutus and Caesar. But as Morris meet stiff resistance from the Neapolitan director of Verona’s Castelvecchio museum, everything starts to unravel around him. His children are rebelling, his mistress is asking for more than he wants to give, his wife is increasingly attached to her ageing confessor, Don Lorenzo, and worst of all it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the ghosts that swirl around him, and the skeletons rattling in every cupboard. The shame of it is that Morris Arthur Duckworth really did not want to have to kill again.

And here’s a more personal comment…

In my twenties I wrote seven novels before one – Tongues of Flame – was finally published. Cara Massimina was the last of the failures. Story of a frustrated English teacher in Italy who kidnaps his rich young fidanzata and sets off on a summer journey with her around the bel paese, the novel was meant to be immediately commercial and publishable, but at the same time a vehicle for my own frustration, a comic fantasy of the kind of ‘revenge’ a failing writer might take against the world. And a self satire too. Entirely convinced of his own goodness and genius, Morris Duckworth blames everyone else for his mediocrity, taking disgraceful advantage of the naive Massimina youngest of three sisters in the asphyxiatingly provincial famiglia Trevisan. The formula also allowed me to write for the first time about Italy where I had been living then for two years. It was 1983, I was 27, and feeling with maximum intensity the tension between my English past and my Italian future.

Nobody wanted to publish the novel and I put it away in a drawer with the other dusty typescripts, until in 1990 a friend who writes crime stories asked to read it. He was enthusiastic, and encouraged me to send it out again; this time it was accepted first shot. At this point I made a classic mistake. Fearing the book was so utterly different from the novels I was now known for, I had sent it out (and not to my own publisher) under the pseudonym John MacDowell. It was thus rather infuriating when the LA Times thought that John MacDowell had written a novel that was “better than Silence of the Lambs”. Years later it cost quite a lot of money to revert the contract I had signed and get the book back under my own name with my own publisher.

Despite all his comic clumsiness, I allowed Morris to escape justice at the end of Cara Massimina. I thus found myself in the early nineties, eight years after writing the book, with a murderous Englishman who had arrived in Italy at the same time I had and was presumably becoming Italian much at the same speed as I was. I thought it might be fun to go back to him and recount his marriage with Massimina’s older sister Paola and his rise to top of the Trevisan family’s Veronese wine company. At the same time, the reputed English film director Dennis Potter bought the rights to Cara Massimina. Things looked promising. This much crazier second novel, was hailed by one British paper as Tarantino meeting Peter Mayle, and though I like neither of them, I know what the reviewer meant. Mimi’s Ghost is a middle-class dream of Italy, but haunted by a serial killer.

Dennis Potter died before the new novel was published. The film rights to the first were sold on to a Hollywood company who planned to cast Jude Law as Morris Duckworth. A team came to Verona to see the house the Trevisan sisters lived in. But the project proved even shorter-lived than Morris’s marriage to Paola and my fantasies of wealth, which were always somehow mixed up with Morris’s, had to be put aside. I had meant to write a third novel, if only because the presence of a third Trevisan sister almost demanded it. But Morris had done so much lying and killing in Mimi’s Ghost that it was hard not to feel he needed a rest. For many years the project lay dormant, a file moved from one computer to another with just a few jotted notes.

In 2011 two things happened to bounce Morris Duckworth back into life. I had been invited to curate an art exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence based on a book I had written about the Medici bank in the 15th century: Medici Money. At once I realized that this was exactly the kind of elitist position that Morris would be willing to kill for. At the same time a well-known literary critic, emeritus professor of English no less, mentioned to me that he had read the Morris books and as we laughed together about them it emerged that he took them seriously. I had always thought of these novels as pure, or very impure, fun, but now this critic seemed to feel that nothing is more serious than when an author chooses to have fun. Suddenly, it felt like the right moment to pick up the pen, the gun, the knife, or any heavy object that came to hand, and spend some time with the now 55-year-old Morris Duckworth.