Mr. Smith goes to Venice – and Russia and …

Martin Cruz Smith has made a career of traveling to foreign places to capture the local color and find inspiration for his novels, which he calls “fictional experiences based on fact.”

“I go to more interesting places for my books than I would on my own,” he once told me during a visit to his San Rafael home, and that has not changed. “My goal is to get across to readers what it’s like to be there. (Many writers) are unwilling to get away from their desks and pursue their stories.”

For examples, Smith journeyed to Japan for “December 6,“ to Cuba five times for “Havana Bay” and to England for “Rose.” He’s been to Russia many times for his most well-known series starring his most-enduring protagonist, Arkady Renko, a senior investigator for the Russian state police. The first of the eight “Renko” novels was “Gorky Park,” made into a movie starring William Hurt, Lee Marvin and Brian Dennehy (1983).

Last year, Smith made trips to and from Italy to research his new stand-alone novel, “The Girl From Venice,” set in 1945 in the waning months of World War II, when the Nazis still occupied much of the country and dictator Benito Mussolini was plotting a hasty exit (Simon & Schuster, $27, 320 pages).

In it, Cenzo the fisherman rescues the Jewish teenager Giulia from the Venetian Lagoon, where he fishes alone on his boat, miles from his island home of Pellestrina. One night, he plucks the girl from the water and from the clutches of the Wehrmacht, which has murdered her wealthy parents. What follows are intrigue, close calls, history, politics, family secrets, edgy relationships among characters who are not what they seem and, finally, a sort of love between two unlikely but very likable opposites. As it turns out, all is not so well that ends well.

Among other honors, Smith, 73, holds a Left Coast Crime Lifetime Achievement Award and a Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers.

For 18 years, Smith concealed his 1995 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, both from his readership and his publisher. When he revealed it in 2013, he explained to The New York Times, “I didn’t want to be judged by that. Either I’m a good writer or I’m not.”

Vist the author at

Q: Cenzo seems to wise up as the story unfolds.

A: He allows himself to get smarter. He plays life as a sort of feint, but he’s really hiding out from himself.

Q: Cenzo develops a relationship with Giulia, but has a far more complex one with his two brothers, one of whom he watched die on the water.

A: The book is about brothers, and to miss that is to miss the thrust of the story. (Like Cenzo) I have a big brother, so I wanted to get into the subject of brotherhood. I’ve gone through so much in my life avoiding the land mines that maybe I shouldn’t have avoided. I haven’t yet done my parents, but I hunger for taking them on because their lives were so much more interesting than mine. It takes nerve to resurrect your family.

Q: Has your brother read the book?

A: No. Giorgio (the older brother character) has elements of the awe and trepidation a younger brother deals with in the all-powerful older brother (template).

Q: What was your research like?

A: I spent a lot of time with the net fishermen on the island of Lido. They resented having this ignoramus examine their lives, but I told them, “I’m sorry, but too bad, I’m going to do this anyway.” Some of the guys were just terrific – 80 years old, gnarled and strong, inviting and happy to take me out on the water.

Q: But with a catch?

A: Yes, (they cooperated) as long as I was willing to accept their contradictions. “You should fish with a full moon.” “Don’t fish with a full moon.” “Use only this net.” “No, use only that net.”

Instead of pointing out the contradictions within the skill zone called fishing, you have to go in a narrow little boat, get down low and cruise through the reeds and marshes and simply be part of it. Sometimes you’re unconsciously melding with the water and the amazing variety of wonderful boats. The nets are all different, too, some of them look like trumpets, some like butterflies.

Q: Is the lagoon getting overfished?

A: There’s some culpability in that. The boats are laws unto themselves and do (things on the water) that have been described as illegal. At the same time, the fishermen regard themselves as the sensible stewards of the bay.

Q: Cenzo and Giulia are from different worlds and seem an unlikely match. I was surprised she didn’t just go her on way.

A: She still might. They’re definitely attracted to each other and they fuse, as two people on a small boat will, but their relationship is in the balance at the end of the book.

Q: One trademark in your Arkady Renko books is surrealistic, absurdist scenes, also seen in “Venice” especially when Cenzo goes to the town of Salò on Lake Garda to find Giulia. Foreshadowing that is this exchange between two villagers:

 ‘This has every element of insanity a man could hope for,’ Nido said.”

 ‘Ha ha, it only gets better,’ Salvatore said.”

A: You’ve got to allow yourself the freedom to indulge your characters. If I can’t get behind my characters and let them loose, then what am I doing? The Republic of Salò was the capital of Mussolini’s Italian Socialist Republic, but for only the 20 months (walking up to) the end of the war. When I discovered it, it was like pulling gold out of the mother lode. The whole setup of the German army and the complicit Italians deserved to be examined.

Q: You made it clear that Mussolini was the corrupt puppet of the Nazis.

A: At the same time, he was smart. But he was so corrupt that at the end (of his reign) he was screwing his own people by stealing a cache of gold bars. That issue is factual history.

Q: What happened to the gold bars?

A: They were thrown into Lake Garda by the Fascists who were traveling with Mussolini, to hide them and to be retrieved later. But Benito was soon overrun by events. At the very end (of his rule), he was treated very gently, like a mental invalid, before he was machine-gunned, hung and mutilated.

Q: And the gold?

A: People still go into the lake trying to find it.

Q: You’re working on your ninth Arkady Renko novel.

A: Yes, I just got back from Siberia, doing research for the (2017) book. I went with my wife, daughter, agent and translator to Lake Baikal, the biggest (ice-free freshwater) lake in the world. We went up and down the lakeshore and into towns, where I found very rich material. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but I feel I was in the right place.

Q: What will Arkady find in Siberia?

A: The place is so grim. The town of Chita, for example, has the title of being the most dangerous place in Russia. How could I pass that up? We felt really uneasy while we were there.

Q: Got an anecdote?

A: We were on the highway and saw a man in a field by himself, using a pickax to break up cinder blocks. He was a prisoner working on his own, without supervision, because he was so hopeless and there is no place to escape to.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe