The Malice of Fortune follows a current trend of mystery fiction to use actual historical people as detectives. In this case, the novel is set in 16th century Italy, and the historical detective is Niccolò Machiavelli, assisted at times by Leonardo da Vinci.
It is 1502 in the Papal States of Italy, and the infamous Pope Alexander VI, the former Rodrigo Borgia, has received word of his beloved son Juan, who was murdered years before. A woman was found butchered in Imola, and with her body was an amulet Juan always kept with him. The Pope summons the courtesan Damiata, whom he suspects of complicity in Juan’s death, and takes her little son hostage while he dispatches her to investigate.
In Imola, Damiata finds that someone has been murdering and butchering women and then leaving quarters of their bodies around the city. When she travels out to the scene of the latest discovery, she finds that Juan’s brother, the dangerous Duke Cesare (nicknamed Valentino) Borgia, has Leonardo da Vinci on the scene as his investigator. Da Vinci thinks that the killer is playing a game by constructing puzzles for him. At the scene some masked men provide an additional clue by fleeing the investigators.
Damiata also meets Niccolò Machiavelli, who is in town representing the city of Florence, which is afraid that Duke Valentino and his condottieri, or mercenaries, are planning to attack the city. Damiata suspects one of the three condottieri generals of being the murderer, but she does not know which one.
Machiavelli provides a different insight into the murderer. He has made a study of what he calls “the necessity” for each man–what drives him–and he begins trying to discover the murderer’s necessity. Machiavelli and Damiata team up to find the murderer.
This novel has interesting characters and situations, but at some point I felt as if the characters are chasing around too much with little result. Instead of building suspense, the plot seems unplanned and disorganized.
Michael Ennis is a historian, and the historical background is convincing and seems accurate. Compared to his previous novel about medieval Italy, The Duchess of Milan, a straight historical fiction novel about the powerful d’Este family, The Malice of Fortune is a little disappointing.