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SENT TO THE DEVIL by Laura Lebow: Book Review

Poet and opera librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte is busy in Vienna, writing the words to accompany the operas of Mozart and Salieri.  Da Ponte has achieved some fame in the operatic genre at this point in his life, but his hope is to be able to write poetry full time.  However, for the moment his main income is from the production of the operas, so he continues that work.

It’s 1788, and the Austrian empire, led by Emperor Joseph II, is at war with the Turks.  Students are protesting on street corners, and citizens are watching what they say in public lest they attract the attention of the emperor’s soldiers or police.

Having been exiled for fifteen years from his native Venice for immoral conduct, Lorenzo has assembled a small group of friends to replace his family.  Chief among them is Father Alois Bayer, who has become almost a father to the younger man; their mutual love of books is what brought them together.  But the day after the two men meet for lunch, the priest is murdered in front of the Capistran Chancel.

Father Alois’ murder was the second in Vienna in three days.  The first was General Peter Albrecht, an elderly military man known throughout the city.  He, thought Lorenzo, was someone who might have had enemies, given his absurdly high self-regard and the current feeling in the city about the military.  But why would Father Alois be a victim as well, Lorenzo asks himself?  There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the two men.  However, when he goes to the police to get more information, he’s informed that they both were killed in the same way, with a single knife thrust across the neck.

Into this mix comes Giacomo Casanova, best known today for having made his last name synonymous with seducer of women In addition to his romantic escapades, he was known during his lifetime as a writer, adventurer, and spy.  In Sent to the Devil, Casanova is a close friend of Da Ponte’s and aids him, although not as much as he himself would like to believe, in capturing the man responsible for the series of murders that have rocked Vienna.

Laura Lebow seamlessly blends historical facts with fiction.  Da Ponte was, as the novel tells, the lyricist for two of Mozart’s most famous operas, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro.  In creating a series in which Da Ponte is the hero, Ms. Lebow has an incredible amount of information to work with:  he was born a Jew, converted as a child to Catholicism in order to gain an education, fathered illegitimate children while a priest in Vienna, moved to London, went bankrupt, fled to the United States, and became the first professor of Italian literature at Colombia University.  Honestly, you couldn’t make this up.

Da Ponte is, at least in the first two books of what I hope will be a long series, a more honorable and likeable man than he probably actually was.  But no matter, it’s the author’s prerogative to fashion her protagonist any way she chooses, and in The Figaro Murders (reviewed on this blog) and Sent to the Devil Lorenzo Da Ponte is a man worthy of respect.  Ms. Lebow has brought him and eighteenth-century Vienna vividly to life.

You can read more about Laura Lebow at this web site.

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