cover image A Rich Full Death

A Rich Full Death

Michael Dibdin. Vintage Books USA, $13 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-375-70614-1

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)