Wed
May 4 2016 2:00pm

Fresh Meat: Sent to the Devil by Laura Lebow

Sent to the Devil by Laura Lebow is the 2nd Lorenzo Da Ponte historical mystery.

“You! What do you want with me?”

“You know what I want you to do,” the man hissed...

“No!” He tried to shout, but his voice was merely a croak. “No! I will not!”

The old man saw a blurred motion, and then pain seared his neck. An owl hooted in the distance as blood spattered over the stone steps.

“I am dying!” he cried. But he could not hear his own voice, only a loud gurgling, and after a few moments, nothing...

Spring, 1788. Austria is on the brink of war with the Ottoman Empire and already soldiers are dying of disease in the camps along the front. The exiled Venetian Lorenzo Da Ponte—Royal Librettist for the Emperor—is hard at work revising his lyrics for Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni.

And a killer stalks the streets of Vienna.

When the murderer attacks Da Ponte's closest friend, a retired priest, the poet finds himself, yet again, unwillingly embroiled in death and madness. Well aware of how prejudiced the police force can be, and how easily victims can be forgotten, Da Ponte agrees to assist a nobleman Richard Benda in tracking down the culprit.

Benda—displaying the sort of stubborn certainty that is so often a hallmark of privilege—is convinced the murderer's motivations are political, in the wake of public outcry against the current war.

“The killer may be attacking symbols of Austrian greatness...He has already murdered the general, the country's greatest war hero,” he continued. “Perhaps he wished to attack the church next. He may have lurked outside the cathedral last night, waiting for a priest—any priest—to come by. Your friend might just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Da Ponte is hardly convinced. He knows his friend Alois was a simple, humble man of the cloth, content to spend his days locked away in his room continuing his studies. And, when a third victim is found, a pattern is revealed: one Da Ponte is uniquely prepared to understand.

It seems the killer's motivations are far more poetic. In an 18th century twist on Se7en, he's choosing his victims in terms of the seven deadly sins. Someone, it seems, has taken Dante's Purgatory too much to heart.

“The man is deranged. He does not think rationally, like we do. He believes what he wishes to believe about his victims. …Yes, he is acting as a judge. In Purgatory, each sinner must be educated about his sin before he may be absolved of it.” Excitement entered my voice. “I see now—he is sending the passages to teach his victims about the sin. Then he summons the victim to judgment...”

In the midst of his murder investigation, Da Ponte finds himself juggling both personal and professional issues. Don Giovanni must be re-written for a Viennese audience at a time when the city's taste for opera is waning, so he and his partner, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, are hard at work every day.

Meanwhile, our librettist hero crosses paths with a young woman from his native Venice, Marta Cavalli, who has been foully misled by a scoundrel of a baron. His desire to help her recover from her betrayal soon develops into a different kind of desire—but will Marta ever love anyone else as passionately as the Baron Von Gerl?

And is she as innocent as she seems?

Then, there are the ominous, anonymous letters Da Ponte has been receiving—April of 1788 is proving turbulent for the entire city, but Lorenzo sure has more than his fair share of concerns. Good thing he has cleverness—and old friend Giacomo Casanova—on his side.

Sent to the Devil is Lebow's second installment in her Lorenzo Da Ponte series, and it proves just as meticulous in historical detail as her debut. Her Vienna is fully realized and vibrant; she does a deft job of showcasing its glittering wealth and culture, as well as its seedier, poorer edges.

With the tensions of war ever-present in the background, commentary on racism, class conflict, and expansionist policies are woven into the primary plot. The nobleman Benda is quick to pin the blame on a shabby protestor, while Da Ponte is far more sympathetic to the common man and willing to look in unexpected directions to uncover the truth.

There's always a degree of risk when authors tinker with historical figures, but Lebow's characterization of great men like Mozart, Casanova, Antonio Salieri, and Da Ponte himself manages to be both interesting and respectful, which is a difficult balance to manage.

It can be tempting to indulge in stereotypes or larger-than-life caricatures, particularly when writing about someone as infamous as Casanova, but Lebow commits to showing such familiar names as average, if incredibly talented, men with all the foibles and flaws of humanity.

The mystery itself is a decent one, with enough detours and red herrings to keep us on our toes—I was more than half-convinced a character was the killer, only for that character to become another victim. And the conclusion is a satisfying one; Lebow layers in just enough clues to make the reveal logical yet still surprising.

Sent to the Devil, like the best operas, has a little bit of everything: death, betrayal, madness, sex, romance, and war. It's a quick, light read for fans of historical mysteries and music lovers alike. Now that we've had mysteries tied to The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, I'm interested to see where Lebow and Da Ponte take us next.

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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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