Lucrezia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons
How many authors could write a mystery series featuring a madam running a brothel and paying rent to the Catholic Church in 12th century London? And how many of those could turn around and begin a new series starring Lucrezia Borgia? And in both cases make those characters sympathetic and their stories intriguing? One of the very few is Roberta Gellis. Her latest mystery, though not without flaws, proves the point.
Gellis’ fictional account of Lucrezia Borgia’s story begins after marrying Alfonso, heir to the Duke of Ferrara. Ferrara, a city-state in northern Italy, seemed like the perfect retreat for Lucrezia. Her arranged marriage to Alfonso and her newly pregnant state have made her a favorite of the people of Ferrara. Even better, she is far from the undeserved accusations of poisonings and other foul deeds she left behind. Her new life is far from Rome and the machinations of her father, Pope Alexander VI, and her conniving and dangerous brother Cesare.
Her hard-won peace is shattered when Alfonso accuses her, loudly and publicly, of murdering Bianca. Bianca Tedaldo is one of a group of ladies in waiting foisted on Lucrezia by her father-in-law. And while she had no particular affection for the woman, Lucrezia is astounded by Alfonso’s accusation. She is outraged when Alfonso intimates that she might have killed Bianca because the woman was his latest mistress. Not only does she disbelieve his assertion, she couldn’t have cared less. Or so she tries to tell herself.
Her feelings about Alfonso aside, Lucrezia suddenly finds herself once again under suspicion. To be accused of poisoning someone and endure the looks of suspicion, the snide comments from her enemies, and the gossip behind her back is more than she is willing to bear. If she is to put Bianca’s murder to rest, Lucrezia must discover and expose the true killer; otherwise the doubts will continue to linger in the minds of the Ferrarese, and Lucrezia will have gained nothing in marrying Alfonso.
Going into this book I only had the vaguest sense of who the real Lucrezia Borgia. All those accusations the fictional Lucrezia leaves behind in Rome – that she was incestuous, a lecher, a poisoner, a master manipulator – those are the things I “knew” about the actual historical figure. I welcomed the chance to get to know Lucrezia through Gellis’ story. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be this woman, guilty of none of those things, and yet living with the consequences. Gellis does well in depicting Lucrezia and her world. I was intrigued from page one.
Surprisingly it is in the details of the mystery that the author falters. The pacing of Lucrezia’s investigation echoes the leisurely pace of life in Ferrara’s court, but the clues are slow to come and not all of them are addressed by books’ end. And if I could make one suggestion for the finished book, it’d be that the author or the publisher include a cast of characters at the beginning of the book. Many of the names will be unfamiliar to readers and many characters appear on stage, so to speak, pretty early on, then aren’t seen again for quite a while. Relationships aren’t always immediately explained which led to some early confusion about who was who.
I don’t read mystery series (hopefully this is the first of many starring Lucrezia!) just for the mysteries. I read to see how people’s lives change when danger intrudes. How do they get on with their lives once murder has occurred? I read to see how they deal. But mostly I read to see the development of relationships and characters over a period of time as they deal. And that’s how Ms. Gellis’ latest truly drew me in. I wanted to know about Lucrezia and her slow building romance. I wanted to know more about the politics and the people. I’ll be definitely be waiting, oh so impatiently, for the next.