The Medici Murders — a new Venetian tale

Time, finally, to talk about my new book. It’s called The Medici Murders and will be out on October the fourth in hardback in the UK, US and in e-book from Severn House, worldwide in audio in English from WF Howes on that same date – available through Audible and all the other usual audio outlets. And there’ll be a mass market paperback from Canongate in summer 2023.

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This is what Graham Greene used to call an ‘entertainment’. A story with a lightness to it, a degree of humour and an engaging mystery at heart. Oh, and with an enormous sense of location too. In Venice again, a place I don’t just want to describe for you in The Medici Murders; I want to transport you there so you can hear the gulls and the church bells, smell the lagoon air, feel the chill of a carnival February, taste that pasta our protagonist’s eating in a little bar – a real one, there are lots of genuine locations here – as he embarks upon a uniquely Venetian adventure.

His name – and I was determined to pick one that was a million miles from that of conventional fictional heroes – is Arnold Clover. When we first meet him, he’s about to enter the offices of a very clever and incisive Carabinieri captain, Valentina Fabbri, who feels sure he can help solve what appears to be an odd murder riddle.

Recently widowed, Arnold’s a former archivist with the National Archives in Kew, a methodical man whose working life has been spent deciphering, documenting and filing important historical records. Before that he was a lowly working-class student at Cambridge, a place where he observed from a distance a flamboyant history professor, Marmaduke Godolphin, and his gilded circle of preferred students, most of whom went on to much greater things. As did Godolphin himself, now calling himself Duke and a pop historian on TV, with series and books recounting and sometimes mangling history for a mass audience. Duke is now at the end of his career but believes he has one final revelation to revive it: a new and shocking discovery about one of the most notorious double murders in Italian history.

While most of this story may be fiction, these two deaths are very real. Let’s go to Tuscany in 1537, January the sixth, the night of Epiphany. Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, has received an invitation to meet a married woman he’s long admired on the promise of a romantic evening. She’s not there. But his cousin Lorenzino is, along with a cutthroat, and in a bloody tussle Alessandro is stabbed to death.

Lorenzino flees and spends the next eleven years as a fugitive dodging paid assassins after his own blood, travelling through Italy, France and Turkey, until finally settling in hiding in Venice. There, among a community of exiled Florentines, he feels safe enough to start an affair with one of the city’s married aristocrats and father a daughter. On February 26, 1548, he’s finally cornered by two assassins and dies, stabbed to death on a bridge in the San Polo district. He’s just thirty-three.

One of the remarkable aspects of these two murders is that we still have first-hand accounts written by those who took part. Lorenzino, who fancied himself as an intellectual and a poet, penned his own so-called apology, in truth a self-serving defence of his murder of Alessandro as a blow for freedom against a tyrannical ruler. The account of his own death is more visceral, blunt and boastful, written by the mercenary Francesco Bibboni who, with a companion, followed the doomed man for weeks in Venice until finally cornering him one night after carnival.

The Ponte San Tomà today

Bibboni leads us through the alleys of Venice on the day of Lorenzino’s murder. And so, close to five centuries later, does Duke Godolphin, along with his assembled cast of former students, taking them from the Campo San Polo, where Lorenzino lived, to the small bridge of San Tomà where he died beneath Bibboni’s dagger. Godolphin believes he has a new insight into both murders, one that will change their interpretation and the repute of a famous figure who hovers on the edge of this tale. But he needs Arnold to find certain proof of his supposition, hidden in a collection of documents donated by an admirer now dead.

Arnold has misgivings from the start, about Godolphin, about the story he’s trying to tell, and the motley collection of historians and relatives the man has gathered about him to reveal what he believes to be his return to TV greatness.

All of which comes to a sudden end when Marmaduke Godolphin is found dead in the water, dressed as a Venetian doge, stabbed and bloody, half-floating by the very bridge where Lorenzino de’ Medici died.

Days after, Valentina Fabbri has summoned Arnold to her office so that she can hear his version of events from Godolphin’s arrival in the city with his quest, to the dramatic way in which his hopes unravelled on the dark, cold night he met his end. And there we have the structure of the story. Valentina unpicking Arnold’s recollections of the previous week, commenting on them, confident that, before the day is out, the two of them can find out what really happened to Duke Godolphin the night he died in the same place and a similar fashion to the exiled aristocrat who fascinated him.

Stories have many levels and the primary one for this is, of course, the mystery of Duke Godolphin’s death. But there are others too…

The way history can sometimes be altered and abused by those with an axe to grind.

How being a stranger in a strange city is so much easier if you are fortunate enough to have friends.

Arnold’s need to find some way to resolve the grief he feels about the loss of his wife.

And, running through so many of the pages, how Venice is a constant reminder of the past, so much unchanged over the centuries, as Bibboni’s journey from San Polo to the Ponte San Tomà, then fleeing to Santo Spirito on the Zattere and finally across the Bacino San Marco demonstrates very well. Had he and his cohort been captured, the two would have been tortured inside a chamber that still exists in the Doge’s Palace, then beheaded or hanged between those two columns on the waterfront where tourists stand taking selfies today.

Venice, you see, is full of stories, real and imagined. I hope you enjoy my entertainment. It won’t be the last outing for Arnold Clover. Next year he’ll find himself in a fresh pickle that arises from the history of another notorious Italian clan.

You may have heard of them. They’re called the Borgias.