Jonathan Walker


On his book Pistols! Treason! Murder! The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy

Cover Interview of February 03, 2010

In a nutshell

Pistols! Treason! Murder! describes the short, disturbing and unprecedented career of a Venetian spy, Gerolamo Vano, who was executed for perjury in 1622.

In the years immediately preceding his death, Vano wrote hundreds of surveillance reports, based on material compiled from a revolving cast of suborned informants.  Vano submitted these reports to his nominal employers, the Venetian Inquisitors of State, who were dedicated to protecting state secrets—that is, to counter-intelligence in modern parlance.  Vano’s targets were the embassies of powers then hostile to the independent Venetian republic, principally Spain and her Hapsburg allies.  In working against these targets, Vano was one of a number of competing suppliers in what we might describe as a deregulated free market of information (indeed, a black market); one whose invisible operation on capitalist principles was unique in the guild economy of early seventeenth-century Venice.

The Inquisitors of State did not directly employ informers (although they could directly reward them); rather, they delegated this task to independent intermediaries like Vano, whose reports are distinctive among those submitted by his contemporaries for their professional focus.  They are also crudely melodramatic and obviously mendacious, even if it is virtually impossible to catch Vano outright in any specific lie.  Nonetheless, these reports resulted in the arrest, imprisonment and/or execution of several of Vano’s protagonists.  But since the Inquisitors’ final statement on the matter was to execute Vano for perjury, his reports clearly present unique interpretive problems.

Pistols! Treason! Murder! is therefore about Vano as a storyteller, but it is also more generally about the role of stories in historical analysis.  To do justice to Vano, it was necessary to experiment with several devices that have no direct equivalent in his surveillance reports, but that illuminate them by analogy, such as original illustrations drawn in the style of seventeenth-century woodcuts and a dialogue between myself and two other historians.