The setting is Vienna in 1786, a city ruled over by the tolerant, progressive-minded emperor, Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa (and brother of Marie-Antoinette). Da Ponte, the court poet, is on deadline for a couple of important commissions, but he doesn’t mind taking time out to help a friend.
Just before he’s carted off to debtors’ prison, his barber, Johann Vogel, who had recently discovered he was adopted, begs Da Ponte to find his real parents. If they’re from the nobility, they may have the funds to secure Vogel’s release.
The situation gets dicey, though, when Da Ponte drops by to see Vogel’s fiancée, a maid at the Palais Gabler. Hours after Da Ponte’s visit, an annoying aristocratic boy from the Palais is found dead, pushed out of an upper-storey window. Accused of the crime and threatened by Pergen, the minister of police, Da Ponte has only one way to clear his name: he must install himself in the household of the Baron Gabler, the prospective ambassador to St. Petersburg, and root out a suspected Prussian spy.
The amiable Da Ponte makes for good company. Admittedly bored by politics, he doubts his abilities to find the perpetrator despite his healthy ego. “Did Pergen really believe that I could solve this crime? True, I am intelligent and observant, as every poet must be…. But hunting down a spy and a murderer! How had I gotten myself into this mess?”
On top of that stress, to pull off his assumed role as poetry teacher to the Baron’s wife, he has to eat with and lodge alongside the servants. How demeaning! Adding even more intrigue is Da Ponte’s hidden past, and assuming this is first in a series, I look forward to seeing how it features in upcoming books.
European politics, a hint of romance, and the staging of a now-famous opera all play roles in this engaging debut mystery. Spending time in the cultured world of 18th-century Vienna is a highlight. Per her bio, Lebow has a master’s in City Planning, and I could easily picture the layout of Vienna under her direction: its narrow streets, market squares, bureaucratic district, and popular theatres. It was only with the architectural terms that I found myself stumbling, needing to look up what entablatures and telamones were.
For those interested in catching glimpses of Mozart, the “small composer” himself, he’s presented as a devoted husband and father who happens to have impressive musical gifts. Da Ponte is the star here, though, a deliberate choice on Lebow’s part (read her informative author’s note for more). In her solidly researched novel, the librettist gets his turn in the spotlight.
The Figaro Murders was published on March 31st by Minotaur ($24.99 / C$28.99, 320pp + author's note). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.