John Webster’s The White Devil is not widely read in the U. S, nor is it often taught in the universities here. I discovered it through a newspaper review of theatrical production that was a sensation in New York. I could not make the trip to see it, but I read the play. Then read it again.
It wasn’t till later I learned the roots of the story: how Webster had drawn his tale from the real life events surrounding a murderous love triangle that dominated the scandal sheets of the later Renaissance.
I love Webster’s play. I love his dark vision. I love the startling modern feel, his portrayal of pervasive corruption, the forbidden sensuality, the erotic undertone. I am especially drawn to the female character, Vittoria. Not because she is good— because she isn’t. She is an unfaithful wife, seduced by the promise of wealth, who plays willing inspiration to the murderous impulses of an unscrupulous lover. Vittoria is the moral center of the play, not because she seeks forgiveness, but rather because refuses to do so: she will not to fall to her knees before authorities looking not for justice but a scapegoat: a way to hide their own corruption.
Though it would be severely anachronistic, it is tempting to label The White Devil as a prototypical noir tale, and to think of Vittoria as embodiment of a of noir heroine.
I do most of my serious writing on a small, narrow desk facing the wall. I have a habit of tacking things onto that wall, news clippings, index cards with hand scrawled quotations, odd pages torn from magazines, photos, some of which stay up for years, yellowing, and which often (not always) find their way into my fiction in some form or the other.
My first attempts —absurd in retrospect—at retelling The White Devil were historical fiction. I sketched out two timelines on colored paper, pinning them on that wall: one drawn from Webster’s play, the other from the historical events surrounding the real-life murders. I likewise taped up Renaissance portraits of the real life principles—and later a magnificent photo of Geraldine McEwan, in the 1969 National Theater Production, in what is often referred to as the best dramatic staging of the play on a set designed by Fellini’s frequent collaborator, Piero Gherardi.
All this was marvelous stuff, but it only led me deeper off the path, into an impenetrable thicket.
Why retell a story that had already been so well rendered?
The answer, as it turned out, was already on my wall: a clipping I had torn from the San Francisco Chronicle—the story of Amanda Fox, an American exchange student sentenced to 25 years for brutally murdering her Italian roommate. It was a sensational case that caught the fervid imagination of the tabloids, never mind the conviction was eventually overturned. The picture of Fox was black and white, a mug shot of a woman in her twenties, grainy, out of focus but nonetheless compelling, seductive and innocent all at once, oddly similar to the photos of McEwan in the stage role of Vittoria.
More so than the question of guilt and innocence, what struck me was the public howl surrounding Fox’s case. It so resembled the howl, more than four centuries earlier, which had enveloped Vittoria Accorombona. This led me to a realization that my story should not be set in the Renaissance, but in the here and now: in contemporary time. Likewise, my Vittoria was not Italian. She was American, AKA Vicky Wilson, an aspiring actress, an ex-patriot mingling with her scheming brother among the Roman glitterati.
I also realized that to tell this story I must—like any good crime novelist— visit the scene of the crime. So I wandered the streets of Rome, seeking out the places where Vicki might go, crashing parties at private palazzos (or trying to), ending each evening in the Campo De Fiori where, or so I imagined, my American Vicki now lived, in a tiny apartment, in a building many centuries old that had likewise been inhabited once upon by the real Vittoria and her cuckolded husband.
One evening in the Campo, I noticed a young couple, man and woman, who very much resembled each other, and might have been mistaken for brother and sister except for the overt way they fondled one another. As it turned out, they were Americans, and their conversation at the table behind me revolved around where they might go once they were done with Italy.
This didn’t strike me as significant at the time, but later made me realise that my American heroine—once under the gun, sought after by the Italian authorities for crimes real or imagined—would not seek refuge in Padua, as the original Vittoria had. No, she would head abroad, across the ocean—to the states maybe, to the coast—and then further on, to some foreign clime, in attempt to escape extradition. I allowed myself to enter a story written some four hundred years ago, itself a transfiguration of underlying events, based in turn on source material questionably rendered, yet somehow informing the current moment, the yellow clippings, the old pictures, the fading type on the wall.
The White Devil by Domenic Stansberry (published by Orion) Out now,
In the hot, shadowy streets of Rome, Vicki Wilson’s lovers keep turning up dead. Vittoria, as she's known in Italy, is a small-time actress who left behind a dark past in her native Texas and followed her fading writer husband to the Eternal City. Guided by her controlling, obsessive brother Johnny, Vittoria soon enters the upper circles of Roman society, becoming a paparazzi darling and mingling with shady cardinals and corrupt senators. Among them is Paolo Orsini, who quickly falls prey to Vittoria's charms. Too bad he's married; too bad his wife, an aging film icon, is murdered. From the ravishing beauty of Rome - a city of dark secrets held within the frescoed walls of glamorous palazzos - to the pristine beaches of Malibu and the dangerous alleys of a mysterious South American city, Vittoria finds herself at the heart of a lethal chase, spiralling dangerously out of control...