The Four Horsemen by Gregory Dowling is the second book in the Alvise Marangon Mysteries series.
No matter the historic period, some elements of a detective story are eternal. Someone doesn’t want the truth to come out. Often the detective is a free spirit, willing to push past the “don’t bother” advice given. A mysterious, sultry lady is frequently in the cast of characters. Lastly, the detective can take a punch, although it’s not unusual for them to avoid a beating through clever diversionary tactics. The Four Horsemen—18th-century Venetian setting notwithstanding—ticks all these boxes.
Licensed Venetian tour guide Alvise Marangon, who Gregory Dowling introduced in Ascension, is relaxing in his usual watering-hole, the Malvasia del Remedio:
A fault-finder, had there been one in the tavern at that hour, might have hinted that perhaps I could have been a little more sober. But it had been a long day, it was cold outside and the Malmsey wine provided by the tavern was both comforting and reasonably priced. And like so many of the tavern’s clients, I liked to indulge myself in the fancy that the very name of the place indicated that it offered a remedy to life’s ills, even while I knew that Remedia just happened to be the proprietor’s surname.
Soon, he is approached by a distasteful gentleman: “I didn’t like the man who approached me … Unfortunately, I made the mistake of making it clear that I didn’t.” The persistent individual, who interrupts Alvise’s reading of Alexander Pope (a “beautiful edition of the first two books of The Iliad”) wants the professional tour guide to bring his English clients to his master’s gambling establishment. He reminds Alvise that Sior Lucio Molin has “one of the most sought-after gambling establishments in the city.” It could be a mutually beneficial business arrangement. Irritated, Alvise cuts the emissary off abruptly:
“No, and I don’t wish to hear it,” I said, deciding to abandon all semblance of civility. “When my clients ask me for advice on gambling establishments, I recommend the state ridotto and nowhere else. I have no wish to be blamed for any losses they might sustain.”
Lucio Molin’s emissary persists in his quest to have Alvise guide his clients to Molin’s gambling den until Alvise snarls at him:
“I have little more than my reputation to keep me going,” I said, “and so I have no wish to jeopardize it for a few easy bribes.”
Probably not the wisest riposte. Molin’s two henchmen lie in wait for Alvise when he leaves the tavern, and although he does his best to avoid them, a brawl ensues. The fight spills into a very public arena before Venice’s police quickly shut down the altercation.
Dowling’s precise interweaving of Venetian terminology into the narrative makes Alvise’s travails even more realistic, as in this passage:
And then at last the sbirri arrived and the arsenalotti handed us and our belongings over to them. I recognized one of them, a thickset bearded man named Piero, who stubbornly refused to acknowledge me. Things are definitely bad when you find yourself snubbed by a sbirro.
But it’s through Piero’s intervention that Alvise is released from prison and taken to Missier Grande’s offices. In the past, Alvise had been drafted as part of the Venetian secret service by Missier Grande, but that doesn’t explain why the man Alvise calls Illustrissimo had come to his rescue that evening.
“Your particular gifts can still be useful to the Republic, I feel, so it seemed wasteful to allow them to be dissipated.”
“It is good of you to say so,” I said, just a shade uncomfortably, imagining that he had chosen that word with his usual deliberation.
“In fact, I have a specific task that I wish you to carry out. It is one for which your gifts seem highly suitable.”
“I see,” I said. He was presumably not referring to my drinking habits but rather to my linguistic skills and my talent for theatrical improvisation. Those were certainly the qualities that had led to my first being hired as an agent.
“You can consider it a last chance to prove your worth,” he said.
“I see,” I said.
Does Alvise “see”? His patron is asking him to venture into dangerous territory. Missier Grande has found a connection between the death of one of his agents and a secret society known as the Four Horsemen.
Every attempt that Missier Grande makes to investigate the matter is blocked by forces on high, and enlisting Alvise is a move of last resort—one last-ditch effort to uncover the crimes of the present in the secrets of the past before the future claims more lives.
A mission that will receive no official or even un-official support: is it a “last chance” to prove his worth or a fool’s quest? Gregory Dowling’s The Four Horsemen is an erudite, complex mystery that surprises at every turn.
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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.
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