In the gorgeous opening pages of A Beautiful Crime, Bollen gives us a disconsolate drifter, 25-year-old Nick Brink, who arrives in Venice thinking that "he has made it." He's arranged to meet his boyfriend, Clay. Though both are New Yorkers, Nick believes in friendliness now the same way he believed in his youth, even with the "good fortune" of a miserable childhood. Venice seems the perfect place to put his imagination to work. Survival is a powerful theme in the novel, ricocheting throughout Clay and Nick's lives and the scheme they have devised in the form of a "harmless con"--one that will settle their debts and set them up for years to come. All that's required of Nick is the "gentlest of lies."
Venice is like a "symphony playing inside a shipwreck," New York like the remnants of another age. Nick first meets Clay at the funeral service of Clay's long-time lover, Freddy van der Haar. Rumor has it that Clay was a hustler; Nick's boyfriend, Ari, calls him a con-artist and a grifter. After Freddie's death, Clay receives a windfall: an antique silver collection and a walled-half of Freddie's historic Venetian palazzo. Freddie's bequeathed riches bring Nick and Clay into the orbit of Richard West, a wealthy benefactor, just one of the rich old white-haired American men who reside in Venice: "'He's a terrible person,' Clay said. 'A devil. Remember that.'"
Unfolding Nick and Clay's plot in sinister tones, Bollen uses Venice to stunning effect. The labyrinthine canals and dark deserted alleyways make for a perfectly beautiful setting. Clay knows that encouraging Nick's love of Venice is a way of encouraging Nick's love of him, too: "It was like bringing a boyfriend back to your hometown." Clay wants Nick to appreciate the cloistered activity of Campo Sant Margherita. Clay loves the rancid Venetian perfume, reminding him of his first days in the city as a middle-class black kid from the Bronx. Ensconced in best friend Daniela's apartment, Clay contemplates Nick's every detail. It scares and exhilarates him to put so much trust in someone else.
The sexual tension between Nick and Clay quickly takes flight, beyond the curving gray backside of a Gothic cathedral and the slender grand canal glittering in the sun. Nick is driven by a new purpose: to scour the palazzo for signs of life and to find out whether or not Freddy's death had more sinister overtones. He argues with Clay that a closer friendship with West could only serve to help their scheme. Nick can still be one hundred percent faithful "to the person he loved while standing on the other side."
At the heart of Bollen's novel is this evocation of love that Nick and Clay have for each other, outsiders bound together by time and circumstance. Clay is an unforgettable creation: a two-bit trickster who lights up every scene he is in as he leads Nick into a world of excess and murder. Their relationship works so well on the page in part because it has been prefigured by Clay's relationship with Freddy, an affair with a wild, manic quality, something unhinged and hectic and a little perilous. Clay's flaws become more deeply inscribed in him as a consequence of the rejection of his prized Italian internship. Bollen portrays the love between the young men as both simple and complicated.
Richard West is doomed to take Nick into his home and rattle on about his impoverished childhood. Clay can forgive Nick for not wanting to hurt West with their scam, but watching West fall victim to his own greed feels like justice. Could West's real motivation not be the silver but simply to get his first real glimpse of a forgotten masterpiece? Clay knows he's betraying the Freddy's ghost by allowing West into Il Dormitorio. Now that Nick has performed his bogus appraisal, all that's left for him to do is wait.
The tension ratchets up and the "crime" progressively builds. Freddy's old dealer, Dulles Hawkes, surfaces in Venice with an agenda of his own, causing Nick to spin through a world of fantasy and self-delusion. Hawkes wants to mold Nick entirely for his own use. In the end, this complicates Nick and Clay's exclusive cat-and-mouse game. The past threatens to intrude, constantly shadowing their thoughts, obscuring their real purpose.