The Dante Game (1991) by Jane Langton
Homer Kelly, Harvard professor, is off to Italy to teach modern Italian literature at the newly-christened American School for Florentine Studies. In addition, the students will be studying Dante's Divine Comedy with co-founder Professor Zibo and soaking up Italian history with Professor Himmelfarht--all at a broken-down...er, lovely Italian villa. The students settle in and everything is going well--especially once Zibo devises the Dante Game (a sort of scavenger hunt) to help the students connect the classic literature with objects still to be found in modern Florence.
But all is not well. The maid is an eavesdropper and begins whispering little tidbits to her lover the gardener during their amorous meeting. Someone at the villa has secrets to keep and the maid and gardener are found shot to death in their favorite trysting spot. Then the school's secretary disappears. Followed by the death of one of the students and the disappearance of school's most talented and dedicated student. Zibo is certain that Jill Smith has been kidnapped, but with the murders and an impending visit by His Holiness the Pope to worry about Inspector Rossi doesn't seem much interested in an American girl who may have just gotten tired of the awful goings-on at the school.
Elsewhere in Florence an influential man is upset by the Pope's successful anti-drug campaign and decides to do something about it. He's got to get the money coming in again from all those drug sales. But what's a businessman going to do?
So, just to clear a few things out of the way. This isn't really a mystery. There is no doubt in the reader's mind who is doing what--there is nothing for the reader to figure out. It's not even really an inverted mystery because there is no suspenseful "will the detective figure this all out" thing going on. In fact, Homer Kelly--whose mystery series this is--doesn't even detect anything. He doesn't seem very interested in the unusual things going on in and around the school--sure he has a few conversations with Inspector Rossi about the murders and whatnot, but mostly he just says inane things like "Did you look for fingerprints?" or "Are you looking for the missing secretary?" When it comes to spotting clues and actually putting two and two together, Professor Zibo (Zee) is miles ahead of him. The only time he does anything resembling deduction is when he pulls out* a description of what exactly went on when His Holiness the Pope came to town and explains everything except who the shadowy brain behind the plot is. (*out of the air, apparently, because while the reader is privy to all the doings of the bad guys, there is no way Homer can know all the things he claims to have figure out).
Most of Homer's time is spent buzzing about on his rented Vespa-wannabe motor scooter acting like a tourist. He supposedly came to Italy to teach a course, but I have no idea when he actually did that. Given the amount of time the book tells us Zee spent in class with the students on Dante followed by field trips to go look at churches and museums with objects related to The Divine Comedy and the hours they spent being bored to do death by Professor Himmelfahrt's lectures on Italian history, I don't see how there was time for Homer to have a class.
I can't say that I give this high recommendations as a mystery. The descriptions of Florence are good. The details about the Dante game are also good. The best part for me was when Homer was told that Zee would be using Dorothy L. Sayers' translation of Dante's work--because that's the one I read and I thought she did an excellent job. Overall, reading The Dante Game was a bit like reading the Purgatory portion of The Divine Comedy--it seemed to take for-ev-er. ★★ and 1/2
First line: It was a matter of simple geometry.
Last line: It is so bitter, it goes nigh to death;/Yet there I gained such good, that, to convey/The tale, I'll write what else I found therewith... (quoted from Inferno I, 4-9)
Deaths = 9 (seven shot; one fell from height; one hit by car)