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THE FIGARO MURDERS by Laura Lebow: Book Review

Opera, history, and murder meet in this debut novel, and it’s an inspired meeting.  Laura Lebow’s The Figaro Murders brings readers to 18th-century Vienna, home to the acclaimed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his lesser-known librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Lorenzo is Venetian-born but is forced to leave his home due to political intrigues and accusations of immoral behavior.  After traveling to several city-states he lands in Vienna, home of the newly-crowned emperor Joseph II.  There Lorenzo becomes the court librettist; as the novel opens he is completing The Marriage of Figaro, which is due to open in a week.

His official work is interrupted by a commission from his friend Johann Vogel, which he reluctantly accepts.  Johann had accepted a large loan from the housekeeper in Count Gabler’s palais in order to purchase a barber shop.  The housekeeper, Rosa Hahn, now wants repayment, and Johann is taken to debtor’s prison as he does not have the money.

He begs Lorenzo to find out who his birth mother was, finding out as an adult that he was adopted as an infant.  He believes that his biological mother may have been from a wealthy family, that he was kidnapped and given up for adoption, and that perhaps there is some money available to him to enable him to pay his debt.

Lorenzo makes a brief visit to the Gabler palais where he meets young Prince Florian, who is acting as a page to the count.  Lorenzo and Florian have a brief argument, ending with the young man fleeing the palais, and the next day two policemen arrive at Lorenzo’s home to take him into custody for the prince’s murder.

Lorenzo Da Ponte is a historical figure, although much less familiar to modern readers than is Mozart.  Born a Jew, he converted along with his brother and his father to Catholicism when his widowed father decided to marry a Catholic woman.  Lorenzo was thus able to receive a classical education from the clergy, something he would not have been able to do had he remained a Jew.  He later became a priest but led a dissolute life, incurring gambling debts and fathering two children, which led to his being exiled from Venice for fifteen years. 

The Figaro Murders is told through Lorenzo’s eyes.  He is frank about his desire for fame and money, but he is a gifted writer and wants desperately to continue working with the best composers of the era, especially Mozart.  He is easily distracted by the beautiful Countess Elizabeth Gabler but at the same time is committed to his search for his friend’s parentage.  In short, this is the true portrait of a man, with all the flaws and virtues that men possess.

Laura Lebow has written an excellent novel, with fascinating characters and a remarkable sense of history.  I look forward to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s next adventure.

You can find more information about the incredible but true life of Lorenzo Da Ponte at this web site.  You can read more about Laura Lebow at this web site.  

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.