Monday, July 7, 2008

Mosaic Crimes by Guilio Leoni

I don't know if it was because I read the translated edition of this novel, or if the author and his publishers have a very different idea of what a mystery novel entails, but this was, probably one of the most painful reads I've ever had to do. And no one forced me to read on either! Sheer stubbornness made me read on the bitter end -- I just had to discover if things got any better. Unfortunately, it never did.

In the summer of 1300, the city of Florence is tense with fear that the Guelphs and the Ghibellines are about to clash again in another titanic struggle for power. In the midst of this, Dante Aligieri, poet, scholar and newly appointed prior of Florence, finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. The body of a master mosaicist is found, his head covered in quicklime, next to a mosaic he was working on in a church that is being restored. And when Dante discovers that the dead mosaicist, Ambrogio, was part of a secret group of scholars who had all come to Florence to set up a university, and that their funding seemed to be coming from Rome, a suspicious Dante wonders if this group of scholars are in actuality secret spies for Pope Boniface, and if the Pope has sinister plans to control Florence through this college. Why then was Ambrogio murdered? Was there a falling out amongst the scholars that led to this murder? And does this murder affect the future of Florence at all? Determined to solve this murder, Dante begins the business of prying and probing into the affairs of these foreign scholars, in spite of the many apparent dangers that lie before him...

Personally, I didn't find Mosaic Crimes to be a very engaging book. Perhaps this was because I was reading a translated edition, and things were not as they would have been in the original. The version I read seemed a bit flaccid and sterile -- the plot meandered all over the place between subplots that dealt with the horrific murders and the threat of fresh hostilities between the Guelphs and the Ghibbetines. Also, for a novel where so much was going on, and where there was a plethora of suspects and action, Mosaic Crimes was just not very suspenseful. Again, this may have had something to do with the prose style. And there was the subplot involving the heirs to the Swabian throne-- a little more background as to how the throne was lost and why the Vatican was hunting down the remaining heir would have been nice. As it was, I spent a lot of time trying to infer things before I broke down and consulted my bookshelf. However, the biggest problem I had with the book was the author's decision to choose Dante of all people as his chief protagonist. Especially since he'd decided to portray Dante as realistically as possible, warts and all. Dante, in this novel, is an arrogant, small minded, peevish, short tempered and paranoid character, with few redeeming traits and who was just plain unlikable. It is truly difficult to loose yourself in a book when you find the main protagonist to be so annoying that you start rooting for the murderer(s) to get the better of Dante!! However, for me, the most disturbing thing of all was the language used to characterise and deride practically the only female character in the novel, Antilia. A tavern dancer of bewitching beauty and mystery, Antilia both tantalises and repels Dante. So much so that he keeps referring to her in very derogatory terms. Whether or not you decide that this character deserves the "accolades" Dante heaps on her, I can tell you that as a woman, I was quite discomforted by the savagery of language used here. The history bits are good, as is the period detail and the vividly colourful descriptions of scenes. But the storyline took too long to unfold and the sudden dipping into philosophy was too distracting at times. All in all, Mosaic Crimes was a very disappointing read indeed.

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