Don’t let yourself be fooled — Christopher Bollen’s newest novel, “A Beautiful Crime,” has a slow beginning. The start of the novel doesn’t give away the imminent thrills and adrenaline rushes that will soon occur, as you wonder what will become of a young couple and their attempt at pulling off a heist in the world of money and highbrow culture.
“A Beautiful Crime” situates readers mostly in Venice, with occasional tastes of pre-Venice New York life. Nick Brink, formerly an antiques dealer working with his much older boyfriend, begins an affair and hatches a con with a man named Clay Guillory. In Venice, Nick and Clay plan to sell fake silver to a wealthy man. This plan, however, quickly evolves into something much bigger than either protagonist expected, resulting in a conundrum of ethics and existentiality that will make you bite your nails until the bitter end.
“A Beautiful Crime” is a book that pays for its initial sluggishness, multiple times over. Painfully high stakes quickly sneak up on the reader when they’re revealed, much like the fictional experience undergone by Bollen’s protagonists. The book is set up such that events in Venice are compact and recounted close together, with intermittent backstory filling in the blanks. These flashbacks explain how the two main characters — whose perspectives alternate — got to Venice and why their lives are about to change.
One of the most tremendous accomplishments of Bollen’s fourth novel is the depth of its characters. Each member of the book’s ensemble has a vibrant, interesting life of their own. No one is left victim to the pitfalls of stock character traits that can emerge when working within a genre — in this novel’s case, common mystery and suspense tropes that might inspire comparison to the work of Patricia Highsmith. Every moment contributes toward the elegant tension caused by Nick and Clay’s scheming, and every character fits into the plot’s intricate web.
One element disrupts the elegant tension of “A Beautiful Crime.” Clay is Black, and Bollen, a white man, is all too aware of this. Bollen frequently makes up shoddy excuses for tangential exploration of Clay’s racial identity in places that don’t quite make sense. While perhaps well-intentioned, it’s hard not to find it awkward when Clay’s perspective suddenly shifts into melodramatic pondering about how much harder his life has been because his skin is black and Nick’s is white.
Bollen’s survey of queer history across borders, however, escapes this awkwardly preachy tone. Bollen introduces older queer characters and talks about queer history through their voices, rather than presenting it too didactically. Though the very concept of survival often becomes the chief concern of the queer experience, and that concept is admittedly one of the chief concerns that drives “A Beautiful Crime,” queerness is thankfully only a thing in the novel, not the thing.
“A Beautiful Crime” is a love letter to genre fans, particularly those of the queer variety. It doesn’t offer readers a concluding “truth” about the queer experience, as literature labeled “queer” often does. There’s merit to making queerness part of the conflict, yes. But sometimes, all we really want is a bona fide good story. “A Beautiful Crime” is that bona fide good story.
Did you want the cruel gentility of “The Goldfinch” to be a little more genre, and a lot more gay? Look no further: Christopher Bollen is here to deliver.