“Unsavoury is a hideous word. It’s the most hideous word in the dictionary. It conjures up, to my mind, all that is ugly in life, yes, and in death too. The savoury is the joy, the élan, the zest that goes with mind and body working in unison; the unsavoury is the malodorous decay of vegetation, the rotted flesh, the mud beneath the water of the canal. And another thing. The word unsavoury suggests a lack of personal cleanliness: unchanged linen, bed-sheets hanging to dry, the fluff off combs, torn packets in waste-paper baskets.”
This is a compelling, page-turning, darkly insidious novelette about a man’s trip to Venice, and his obsession — as in ‘Death in Venice’ — with a boy or youthful man. Leading slowly but exponentially to being appropriated by the place and by a man in a white mackintosh and others connected with the boy. A story of paranoia and stalking, and being evicted from a hotel to another smaller place, as in Charles Wilkinson’s Mills of Silence novella (reviewed here) that somehow works in mutual synergy with the du Maurier, involving another, perhaps similar, character who is an innocent abroad in another European city, as based on my shaky memory… The slow crescendo of insinuation ironically works up to a speeding boat beyond the canals. Including water skis! And earlier competing orchestras in ‘gay abandon’. (“I could hardly believe it possible that five minutes ago had been gay and crowded, and now wintered gloom.”) And there is talk, too, of a previous victim of the white mackintosh man, a victim by the strange name of ‘Sir Johnson’ whom the boy had also baited. The boy whose favourite Britisher, he said, was Winston Churchill. What did all these words mean in 1959 when they were published? Words like unsavoury and smoking brands like du Maurier… Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’ sonnets, Ganymede, Zeus and Poseidon, notwithstanding.