A historical mystery story where the detective is Dante Alighieri.

Original title: I delitti del mosaico
Publication year: 2004
Format: Print, a Finnish translation
Page count: 331
The translation’s publisher: Otava
Translator: Leena Taavitsainen-Petäjä
Publication year of the translation: 2006

It’s June 1300 in Florence and Dante Alighieri is suffering from a horrible headache. The Bargello, a chief of the City Guard, comes to meet Dante because of horrible crime. Dante is a prior of the city so he agrees to go to scene of the crime, which is an abandoned monastery outside Florence. The victim has been murdered in such a gruesome way that he hasn’t been identified yet. It seems that the victim was a master mosaic artist who has come especially from Rome to build a mosaic into the church which is going to be rebuilt as an academy for learned men. The artist had been suffocated with quicklime, one of his main tools.

Dante is intrigued by the crime and starts to investigate. On his way back home, he stumbles to an apothecary to get help to his growing migraine. In addition to a new remedy, he finds out that the apothecary and the master mosaic artist where both members of a group of learned men who meet in an ill-reputed tavern. They call themselves the Third Heaven. Dante invites himself into the next meeting and meets a group of eclectic men who have all come recently from Rome.

14th century Florence is full of intrigue; the Guelphs and the Ghibellines are ready to fight for the fate of the city and the Pope has sent an emissary to the city. Dante is right in the middle of it as a prior; he supports the Ghibellines who want the Holy Roman Emperor to have all the Earthly power instead of the Pope, and he isn’t shy about it.

As historical story, the book succeed fairly well; the people behave and talk as they might have. Dante is a hot headed man who is very likely to start arguing with, well, anyone. He’s equally good at arguing about astrology, the Pope’s power, or what the murder’s motive might have been. Indeed, there are lengthy discussions about astrology and it’s effect to the justice system, and about various religious topics. I found some of them fascinating. The Third Heaven group also discusses love a lot, especially for seemingly unattached men whose only interaction with women is through whores. Unfortunately, all of this means time away from the mystery.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t work very well as a mystery. More time is dedicated to the various current day subplots than the mystery itself. There are a lot of suspects but I, at least, thought that I didn’t know enough about the victim or the suspects to be able to deduce the murderer.

Also, Dante isn’t a likable character. He’s arrogant and clearly very privileged man. He constantly mocks pretty much everyone else around him: the other priors, the guards, the poor, the beggars, women, especially priests. He doesn’t seem to have any friends. He’s hot tempered, and quick to grab his dagger or bellow. I also found it somewhat strange that his family, wife and presumably kids, are only mentioned once in the whole book and they don’t appear. He also thinks that he is the only logical man around; yet, his logic is based on previous authorities and common knowledge more than facts.

The book has only one significant female character who is a tavern dancer and whom Dante constantly calls a slut in his mind. She’s extremely sensual and strikingly beautiful (of course, insert an eye roll here) and all of the men drool over her pretty much all the time, Dante especially. There is an air of misogyny in the story but that is, alas, probably consistent with the times.

All in all, this was a pretty good glimpse at Florence at the time but, for me at least, it didn’t really work as a mystery.