The Crusade of Darkness
By Giulio Leoni translated by Shaun Whiteside
|Value for money||7/10|
|Did it do what it said on the box?||7/10|
Intense, dark, mediaeval mystery
This is an intense, dark, mediaeval mystery, set in turbulent 13th Century Italy. Giulio Leoni makes Dante Aligheri the central character who travels as Florence’s ambassador to Rome, but who rapidly becomes embroiled in investigating a series of murdered and eviscerated prostitutes, which leads to a complex plot at the highest level of Church and Imperial politics.
The idea of making a real historical figure the detective in a historical mystery is not unique (arguably Philip Kerr makes an even better choice with Isaac Newton in Dark Matter) but it is very effective. We know these characters had considerable intellect, the right political connections to advance investigations, and were in interesting places at interesting times.
However unlike Kerr’s Newton, Leoni’s Dante is initially very ill-prepared for his task, and is annoyingly gullible until right at the end of the tale. Given that this is his fourth outing in such a role, you’d think he’d be getting a bit better at it! The novel also struck me as very similar to S J Parris’ tales featuring Giordano Bruno, but with the difference that at least Dante does at least realise the truth for himself, albeit right at the end.
The story is well written, with action which advances very steadily and got me involved quite quickly. There’s a distinctly Italian focus on the political relationships between the players, but Leoni avoids the mistake of creating a cast of thousands, and focuses on a relatively small group of core characters. The very distinctive writing style is usually easy to read – whether this is the author’s skill or the translator’s is not clear, and arguably unimportant. There are occasional wordy patches, especially when trying to describe Dante’s state of mind or his ideas about his poetry, but these give way fairly quickly to the main action.
The book creates a brilliant depiction of mediaeval Rome, complete with crumbling Roman buildings not yet supplemented by Renaissance replacements, complex power politics and downtrodden lower orders of society. However, I did find the repetitive details of the routes around Rome, described without benefit of a map or some sort of overview, a bit hard to follow. Fortunately it’s not critical to do so for the plot. On a lighter note, I now understand the inspiration for Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork…
The fact that this book is fourth in a series doesn’t seem to be a barrier to reading it first, as the small amount of necessary background is simply explained at the right time. However, as noted, you do wonder how much practice Dante needs to get any good at detection.
This book is not a “light”read, but rewards the reader with a rich, captivating tale well worth the effort.