Murder in Firenza (Florence, Italy)—Twice Over

On our travels, we have made a brief foray from France into Italy for some hiking, one of the outings being in the Cinque Terre, the land of five villages along the sea coast, known for the trails among the villages. Staying in Vernazza, we visited the church by the wharf, dedicated to the village’s protector, Saint Margaret of Antioch.  It seemed like karma, then, that Margaret of Antioch appears as a character in the medieval murder mystery I picked up in a bookstore in Pisa (which, thankfully, had a good supply of English language books). Giulio Leoni’s The Kingdom of Light (published in 2005 in Italy; 2010 in English by Vintage Books) has the poet Dante as the unlikely detective in this tale, which brings to mind earlier mysteries such as The Name of the Rose and The Da Vinci Code. (I might mention that there is a ready audience for novels/memoirs set in Cinque Terre, but I certainly could not find titles. The area is tremendously popular with Americans given Rick Steves’ endorsement.)

Cover of The Kingdom of Light

Even if readers are as not intimately familiar with Dante’s The Inferno as they might be with Shakespeare’s, some of the novel’s echoes of the Inferno–the references to the River Styx, Hades, Beatrice, and “abandon hope”–may bring nods of recognition. Leoni provides a helpful—if initially overwhelming—cast of characters at the novel’s front, but I recommend that readers also look at the glossary that comes at the end of the book. It offers important information on historical events and names of the 13th century, such as the conflict between the Ghibellines and Guelphs. The two factions were in opposition, one supporting a secular government and the other supporting Papal rule and the Catholic Church. It also explains Dante’s role as a prior, an elected councilor, who helped govern the free “republic” of Florence. It may also remind readers of those high school history lessons about Italy’s many city-states and kingdoms, ultimately unified only in 1861.

The mystery arises during a preface set some years earlier in which the Emperor Frederick, known for his intelligence and curiosity, is trying to learn from the gathered scientists “measurements” of  the “height of heaven” that may be viewed as heretical. Moving from 1240 to 1300, Dante and the Firenza militia discover a ghost ship in the marshes; every single person on board—from oarsmen to passengers—is dead. One passenger, though, seems to be missing. Dante recovers a mysterious “machine” from the ship and takes it with him to the city to see if he can discover its purpose.

Once back in Florence, it is not long before Dante is called to the Angel Inn to investigate a murder. The other guests at the Inn all seem to share some connection to the mystery ship, all called to Florence for a meeting. But no one is talking and, one by one, these guests are killed as the plot progresses.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Patron Saint of Vernazza, Italy

Meanwhile, the people of Florence are in awe of a miracle. A monk, Brandano, reveals in a church a mysterious cabinet in which “the virgin of Antioch” is housed, a “relic” to be worshipped. This is an amazing relic as “it” actually speaks and advises people to contribute money to help fund a new crusade to the Holy Lands. The story of the virgin is this: Margaret of Antioch (in modern-day Turkey) converts to Christianity, and her own father cuts her in half to “save her from pagans.” It is her upper half that is contained in the cabinet. This subplot is one of the most interesting of the novel and contains a surprising twist.

In order to solve the mystery, Dante examines various manuscripts that he finds and instructs a workman to reconstruct the mechanical device that he’d found on board ship. There is something about “The Kingdom of Light,” and Dante’s own life comes in danger as he pursues the answer to the mystery. He is threatened not only by the real murderer but also by the evil Cardinal d’Acquasparta, the Pope’s representative in the city, who is also supportive of the Inquisition, embodied in Noffo Dei, its head inquisitor in Florence. Look for some of these characters to reappear in the circles of Hell in The Inferno. Readers who enjoy a stimulating, intellectual mystery will certainly like The Kingdom of Light.

Some centuries later, murder is once again the subject of a mystery set in Florence, this time in 1963. Death in August (2011) is known in Italy as Il Commissario Bordelli (2002) and leads a new series authored by Marco Vichi. The setting is in high summer when most of the Firenze population has moved to the beach, leaving those like Borelli, who relishes the solitude, if not the heat, to deal with the odd murder case. And an odd case happens to come up. An older wealthy woman has died alone in her villa, apparently from an asthma attack, but her companion is quite sure it is murder. Bordelli begins the investigation to determine whether a murder case can be created from what seems to be natural causes. He is aided not only by Piras (a new policeman on the force) but also by the coroner Diotevede, who relishes his work. (A note: there are some graphic details in this novel although it rates an acceptable on the gore-o-meter. One of the chefs at a restaurant where Bordelli tends to eat has a morbid tendency to tell stories  that would cause indigestion for most diners.)

Quirky characters round out the novel: Dante, the deceased’s brother who enjoys “inventing” problem-solving devices; Rodrigo, Bordelli’s cousin who lives to correct chemistry papers from his high school students; various “former” criminals whom Bordelli has reformed—including a fearfully large convict turned mechanic who has a way of curing an engine.

Cover of Death in August

I think that I would like to have the recipe for Zuppa Lombarda (Soup Lombard) that former convict Botta prepares for Inspector Bordelli and his dinner guests. (By the way, the soup is described as “transparent broth with little yellow beans floating in it” to which olive oil and Parmesan is added.) Botta, whose cooking skills have been acquired in multi-national prisons where he’s served, is a protégé of Bordelli, who has a soft spot for the criminal reared in poverty. Maddening to his superiors, Inspector Bordelli thinks nothing of releasing suspects who may have “extenuating circumstances” to their crimes. But this is 1963, not that far removed from World War II Italy where Bordelli served in the army. His new sidekick, Piras, is, in fact, the son of his best comrade in arms from Sardinia.

There are very few women in the story except for those who serve to advance the plot: the victim; the wives of the most likely suspects; a prostitute with a heart of gold whose plants Bordelli waters while she is at the beach.

Vying with the murder plot are fascinating reminisces about World War II as the characters who served in the war recount stories, one which focuses on a prosciutto ham hidden in a barn that is discovered and eaten on alternating days by Italian and German soldiers, each group aware of the other in the final analysis—pondering who might be the first to die. Vichi, the author, who was born in 1957, notes that all of the WWII stories were acquired from his father.

The streets of Florence are definitely on view in this novel and make for a good Road Works read, particularly if one has the misfortune of visiting during high summer. My own advice is to travel to this enchanted city in the spring. I first visited Florence in March, 1987, when on spring break from the University of Stockholm, where I was teaching as a Fulbright Scholar. Suffering from the coldest winter in 147 years according to record, Sweden was breaking out of very long dark days when I ventured south. I still recall the wonderful warmth of the city and napping on a sunlight stone wall in the afternoon after I’d visited the Duomo, the Uffizi, and the Pitti Palace. While a murder mystery may not seem the best companion for a visit to Firenze, Vichi does a good job at evoking the culture and cuisine of the place.

Filing a Road Works entry early in the morning before Internet Point in Vernazza opens, kept company by the Internet Cat.

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