Inspired by two of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet, Sophie Masson’s The Madman of Venice is a tale full of mystery, sinister plot twists and romance. The story begins when Emilia Lanier, an exotically beautiful musician, arrives at the London home of Matthew Ashby, representative to a group of merchants. Emilia beseeches Ashby to go to Venice to search for Sarah Tedeschi, the daughter of a Jewish doctor that saved her life.
Ashby, his daughter Celia and his clerk Ned agree to travel to Venice, largely because Ashby needs to travel there anyway to investigate the pirates plundering his goods. What they find in Italy’s most unique city, in the year 1602, leads to a story driven by the ravings of a lunatic (the Madman of Venice himself), duels, alchemy and so many more intriguing elements that it is difficult even to begin to summarize Masson’s intricate novel.
Information provided about the time period and the fascinating city of Venice drives the story, rather than detracting from it. The fact that the missing Sarah is the resident of a Jewish ghetto in Venice adds to the historical significance of the novel. It takes some time to sort out the many characters and their motivations, but once the plot takes off, it is definitely a great ride.
The Madman of Venice is a romantic mystery in the best sense; Ned is clearly infatuated with Celia, and the empathy readers will feel for his aching heart is tangible. Young and old alike will appreciate the great care Masson has taken to craft a story that gradually, but determinedly, leads to a very satisfying end. The French-Australian Masson is prolific and popular, and The Madman of Venice serves to add to her growing and impressive list of creative successes.