The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow
Published by Minotaur Books, 336 pages, $25
Cambridge opera lover Laura Lebow’s debut novel transports us to 1786 Vienna, where Lorenzo Da Ponte is frantically busy as Mozart’s librettist. But he’s pulled away from his work by his barber, Vogel, who asks for help in finding his birth mother while being carted off to debtor’s prison. This search takes Lorenzo to the nobleman Gabler’s house, crammed with aristocratic intrigue. There, he meets Gabler’s cheeky young protégé, Florian, who’s full of mischievous jokes and prone to secretive activities we hope to see more of.
But the next day, Florian is murdered—and Lorenzo initially becomes a suspect. He’s given a choice: Solve the mystery, or hang for the crime himself. As a cover for his investigation, he takes a job as a poetry teacher to Gabler’s flirtatious wife, Caroline. Her ambitious and cynical husband makes her apparent fragility all the more appealing to Lorenzo. Alas, he’s told she “whored only with the highest aristocrats.”
With operatic high energy, Lebow shows us the hunger for hierarchy that motivates and constrains noblemen. There’s a shocking tale of paternity, seemingly dignified tutors and protectors go way off course, and the household help is drawn into the drama. Guilt lurks everywhere. Meanwhile, Mozart and Lorenzo rush to finish The Marriage of Figaro, adhering to the whims of the emperor, who demands last-minute changes. This lively novel could probably be set to music.
From page 295: “You know, I think we have achieved the near impossible, Lorenzo,” Mozart chortled. “That rare moment when a good composer, one who understands what great theater is, meets an able poet.”
“Able?” I teased. “Is that all I am?”
“No!” He laughed. “You are that true phoenix—the perfect partner! A brilliant librettist and a brilliant conniver!”