Florence,1855. "The English are dying too much," the city's police chief observes. And members of the foreign
community in this quaint Italian backwater, both English and American, are indeed dying at an alarming rate and in an extraordinary variety of ingenious and horrible ways.
With the local authorities out of their depth, the distinguished resident Robert Browning launches his own private investigation, aided and abetted by an expatriot Robert Booth. Unfortunately, their amateur sleuthing is hampered by the fact that each of their suspects becomes the next victim in a series of murders orchestrated by a killer with a taste for poetic justice. A Rich Full Death features characters both historical and imaginary, ranging from an enticing servant girl to Mr. Browning's consumptive, world-famous wife, Elizabeth Barrett, in a tale lush with period detail, intricately plotted, and with a truly astonishing final twist.
The cast of Dibdin's mid-19th-century literary puzzler features a Beatrice, an Isabel, an Elizabeth and even an Edith, but its true heroine is Florence, the Italian city where the twisting tale plays out. In letters to an old friend in America, expat Robert Booth narrates his adventures in Florence with other American and English exiles, including Robert Browning and his invalid wife, Elizabeth Barrett, and Isabel Allen and her wealthy husband. Booth, whose dreams of literary fame have faded as surely as his once passionate love for Isabel, teams up with Browning to investigate a series of six cryptic murders that occur in the expat community, turning the "paradise of exiles" into a miniature hell. As their pursuit of the killer leads them through a maze of social and political circles, the two men's relationship shifts, for they discover that they are both attracted to the same Italian servant. Dibdin's lively dialogue and period prose complement his vigorous characters. The novel relies heavily on allusions to Dante's Inferno, and, though it lacks hair-raising suspense, its many subtle clues and plot reversals are engrossing. The author of the Aurelio Zen mysteries displays a sure-handed command of literature, history and humor in this intricate, literate period piece. Author tour. (July)
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June 27, 1999
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Excerpt from A Rich Full Death by Michael Dibdin
6th February '55
My dear Prescott,
You will no doubt be surprised to receive another letter so soon, but I have news which cannot await my monthly packet. Prepare yourself for a shock, for I have sad and dramatic tidings: Isabel Eakin, n?e Allen, is no more, having passed away yesterday evening under tragic circumstances-of which more in a moment. What a piece of my life-of both our lives-falls into oblivion with her! Death must always diminish the survivors, but when I consider how intimate a part of my life Isabel once was, I feel half-dead myself at the thought of all she has taken with her to the grave.
How vividly I recall those long summer afternoons we spent together-you and I and she, and that freckly cousin whose name and face and indeed everything except her freckles I presently forget. Is it really fifteen years ago? Mighty fine young fellows we thought ourselves then, as I remember; with the bloom of college still fresh on us, like hothouse peaches. I forget exactly how or when we discovered that there were mysteries of which our professors had said nothing (and perhaps had nothing to say), such as the miraculous transformation of scrawny little Isabel-previously the butt of much boyish torment on my part-into a fascinating and powerful figure with capacities of her own for inflicting torment.
I was in love with her, of course. Was I the only one? Own up, Prescott-were you not just as assiduous as I at inventing pretexts for calling at the Allens' house as often as possible? Strange to think that we stood, without knowing it, at one of the great crossroads of Life: we might have married her, either of us, and then everything would have been utterly different.
Well, well, all that is over now-separated by a desert of sterile years from the comfortable pastures of the Present. For what did happen? You launched yourself energetically on your academic career, married a woman who would loyally support you, and won fresh laurels with every year that passed-modestly at first, but set already on course to your present Parnassian position: a Professor yourself, author of a standard text on ethics-and all this at the age of forty!
I also achieved much-in my dreams. If plans, projects, or proposals counted for aught, I should be numbered among the greatest men of our age! What was I not going to write? An epic poem in twelve books on the War of Independence; Washington, a tragedy in five acts; a three-volume novel about a young man's picaresque travels through every state of the union, combining Smollett's dash and colour with the sentimental depths of Young Werther. I was, as you see, going to do much; so much that in the end I did nothing. Not content, like you, to reach for graspable gains, I have remained empty-handed.
And then, to cap so much failure and frustration, came Isabel's refusal-definitive and irrevocable-of my belated proposal of marriage. I am loath to speak ill of the dead, but she erred-of that I am convinced. At all events, after that I could stand no more: the very streets of Boston sickened me, the air seemed contagious and every face mean, stupid and provincial. I set out for the Old World with a heart as full of high expectations as any of our founding fathers making the journey to the New. Expectations which have been fulfilled, for here I have found minds to my measure, kindred spirits, and a fresh start.
Apart from fleeting appearances in my dreams, I had neither seen nor heard of Isabel for over twelve years when suddenly, in the course of a second-rate ball at the Baths of Lucca last summer, I found myself face to face with her. And when I say her, I mean with that lithe bewitching figure I had last seen amid the apple trees and dappled sunlit vistas of the Allens' garden-that superb type of American womanhood: vivacious, proud, high-spirited. The long years between had left no mark on her whatever. But then was that not the keynote she perpetually sounded: of one who, whatever befell, remained untouched?
If so, it was an illusion which was most cruelly dispelled last night. Poor child, to end thus!
First, though, let us leaven these sad tidings with some happier ones. Congratulate me, Prescott, for I awake this morning the confirmed acquaintance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband! Nor shall I stray entirely from my darker theme, for by a bizarre coincidence-if indeed it is no more than that-the circumstances are connected with the terrible details of Isabel's death.
Yesterday I was invited to dine by James Jackson Jarves, the Ruskinist-I have already recounted how I made his acquaintance apropos the Primitive altarpiece in Sansepolcro he wanted for his collection. That came to nothing, unfortunately, the monks proving too grasping, but the connection between us has remained, and one result was an invitation to Sunday dinner, where I was one of a dozen guests picked from the cream of the Anglo-American community here. (Jarves's Wednesday dinners are even more select, but I cannot hope for so much as yet.)
At all events, the gathering was an occasion to remember, and not only as a milestone in my standing here. Nevertheless, I was once again disappointed, at heart. How can I explain? It was all very worthy, the conversation was enlightening and cultivated-and yet, and yet! Where was the spark? The question may seem gratuitous, yet it is one which occurs to me with more and more force the longer I stay in this city where one is confronted on every side by evidence of the genius of the Past; where such figures as Giotto, as Dante, as Michelangelo, are as it were one's daily bread. Where are the names today that might be heard in such company?
On my way home from Jarves's I encountered a man who, in his own estimation at least, is such a one. I mean Mr Hiram Powers, who rejoices in the happy position of being able to sell copies of his 'Greek Slavegirl' for-one hears-some four thousand dollars apiece. Success, I am happy to report, has not had the slightest adverse effect on his character: he has always believed himself to be assured of a place among the immortals and the acclaim of two continents has done nothing to shake this opinion. He is, no doubt, a genius-but whether it be his mid-Western manners or the fawning adulatory throng which surrounds him, I cannot delight in his company. In short, he does not inspire me-although his studio has been a fruitful source of social encounters.
As I was strolling back through the fast-gathering dusk, then, who should I spy ahead of me in the street but just this same Yankee stonecutter. Where was I going? Home; and he? Off to take coffee with the Brownings, who are close friends of his-you may perhaps have seen her pretty sonnet on his Greek slave-piece. Powers's casual words electrified me, for I have had my sights on Mr and Mrs Browning for some time, although well aware of the challenge; for they are difficult of access-a very social Alp; remote, elevated, and somewhat chilly.
I neither batted an eyelid nor faltered in my step, however; merely remarking as we proceeded down the street together that I had lately gone-after hours, being privileged by a personal contact, for the press of tourists during the day is a horrible example of Democracy in action, making it impossible for any to appreciate what all would enjoy-I had gone, I said, to view the 'Medici Venus', which I had long considered the acme of artistic perfection. Indeed-I continued-its inimitable qualities might well cause me, were I a sculptor, to throw away my chisel in sheer despair.
Now I must explain that my reasons for advancing this banal opinion were by no means purely aesthetic. I happen to know that Mr Powers has an exceedingly low opinion of the Venus, which he is fond of comparing to its disadvantage with his own work. Nor did I succeed in altering his views during our brief walk, but my companion became so warm on the subject that he was still holding forth when we arrived at the wedge-shaped palace where the Brownings live, secreted from the world like a monastic order of two. Loth to interrupt the coruscating flow of my companion's ideas, I took it upon myself to ring the bell; and there I still was when Mr Robert Browning came in person to open the door, leaving him little alternative but to admit me too. I was in the seventh heaven! To be permitted to worship at the feet of the poetess of the age is a favour eagerly sought after by all who live in or pass through Florence. But though many are called, few are chosen, and to be numbered among that elect band-well, I need not labour the point.
It proved, however, to be with Mr Browning that I was most particularly taken-surprisingly, since the object of reverence is of course his wife, to whose genius he ministers in the role of sacristan. And yet, for whatever reason I cannot tell, he struck me almost more forcefully than she. No doubt the fact that I had not expected anything in that direction heightened the effect. Certainly there was nothing whatever remarkable or 'interesting' about his appearance. An honest robust no-nonsense English gentleman is all one would take him for: about my own height, with a silvery-grey beard and dark, straight, neatly trimmed hair. Everything about him, indeed, is scrupulously neat and tidy; completely lacking in any hint of eccentricity or cheap artistic affectations of the sort that Powers, for example, is by no means innocent of. But neither is there any suggestion of fussiness or lack of manly vitality. On the contrary, Mr Browning's manner is forthright, virile and energetic in the extreme; his voice vibrant and full of expression; while his gestures seem more Italian than English, being large, frequent and emphatic. In short, a man's man-a woman's too, if I am any judge.
As for his wife, what can I say that has not already been said? It is like trying to say a fresh thing about Florence itself. I will therefore restrict myself to confirming the veracity of the many published accounts-and add my impertinent two cents' worth to the effect that they are a mighty odd couple. Him I have already described; now picture, if you please, a woman of more than a certain age, swaddled in rugs and propped up in an armchair too large for her, for all the world like an outsize doll; fearfully tiny and pale, with a shrill squeaky voice and features pinched with age and suffering, sickly, drained of all vigour, her general pallor accentuated by the thick black ringlets hanging about her face like funeral drapes.
Such is Elizabeth Barrett Browning-a creature seemingly more akin to one of the ectoplasmic apparitions she so fervently believes in than to any woman of flesh and blood. On her undoubted poetic gifts, on the spirituality which observers have described as shining from her face as light from a lamp, I do not presume to comment. My unspoken question was rather, granted all the genius and spirituality in the world, what the devil can be in it for a man like him? To drag out his days in that dim shadowy shrine of a drawing-room, heavy with tapestries and old Florentine furniture and a bust of Dante glaring at you from the sideboard?
There I was, at any event, and it felt enough that I was there, planted squarely atop the Matterhorn and coolly surveying the view in this fashion.
About eight o'clock, as Mr Browning was in the middle of one of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of lively anecdotes, a servant entered to inform him that someone was at the door with a message. Browning went to investigate. After several minutes he returned looking rather flustered, excused himself, and said that he had unexpectedly to go out. When his wife quite naturally enquired as to the reason for this, Browning muttered something about a man named DeVere.
Now I know a Cecil DeVere, and I therefore innocently asked if the man in question were he. To my surprise, Mr Browning shot me a look of-I don't know exactly what, but no very warm or happy emotion-and replied that it might be, he was not sure. Mr Powers saved the situation by remarking that his wife and brood of children would be expecting him, and that he too must be going. For a moment it occurred to me take Browning's 'No, please don't leave on my account' at its face value, and remain ? deux with Elizabeth Barrett Browning! But it crossed my mind that this might be a trifle forward, and jeopardise my chances of future invitations to the Guidi palace. I therefore took an elaborate leave of the poetess, with fervent expressions of hope that we might meet again very shortly-to which, it seemed to me, she replied with genuine warmth!-and walked out with the other men.
At the door, I suggested to Mr Browning that we walk together to Cecil DeVere's house, which lies on the river bank along my natural route home. With an appearance of some confusion, he declined, explaining that the meeting was not at DeVere's house itself but at a suburban villa. As luck would have it, a cab came along at that moment, returning to the rank opposite the Pitti palace-for the Brownings' residence is in the most fashionable part of town, just opposite that of the Grand Duke himself-and Mr Browning immediately hailed it.
I did not hear the direction which he gave to the cab-driver-indeed, I fancy he deliberately moderated his voice to prevent my doing so. In which case he missed his object, for the man bawled it out in the strident tones of his profession, together with many expressions of his unwillingness to go so far outside the walls at that time of night. Imagine my feelings when I learned that the address to which Mr Robert Browning had been suddenly and secretly summoned was none other than the villa in which Isabel and her husband had been living for the past five months!
Literally open-mouthed I watched Browning overcome the cabbie's scruples by liberal recourse to the persuasive powers of coin of the realm. He then took a very perfunctory leave of me, and mounted, shooing the urchin who had delivered the message in ahead of him. As soon as I had recovered my wits I ran down the street to the cab-rank and engaged the solitary vehicle I found standing there, and a few minutes later was also on my way towards the remote villa on Bellosguardo hill.
It was not until we passed through the Roman Gate and outside the protecting circlet of the walls that I realised how violent the wind had become. It was a northerly-the dreaded tramontana which sweeps down on Italy like the barbarian hordes of old, and against which poor Florence's only defence is that massive and high circuit of stone designed to keep out the French, Germans, Milanese, and all the other bloodthirsty bands which once roamed this land, but whose only function nowadays is as a wind-break. Once we got outside the blast hurled itself at the cab like an animate and malignant force, pawing the vehicle about like a cat toying with a mortally-wounded mouse. The clouds had all been stripped from the sky, and the light of the full moon revealed the landscape of cypresses and olives in varying intensities of luminous grey.