The Dante Game

The Dante Game

by Jane Langton

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In Florence, scholar/sleuth Homer Kelly must foil a plot to kill the Pope in a “voluptuously detailed” mystery in which Langton’s “exuberant wit runs riot” (The New York Times Book Review).
 When the Pope issues a sweeping edict calling for a yearlong war on drugs, no one is more surprised than the Vatican to find the campaign a success. In every Catholic corner of the world, young people throw down their needles to pick up crosses. In Florence, thousands of them converge on the Duomo to thank Christ for their newfound commitment to sobriety. Nearly everyone is relieved by this development—save for Leonardo Bindo, banker and druglord. To get his business back on track, he seizes upon a simple plan: Kill the Pope. Standing in his way is Homer Kelly, transcendentalist scholar and occasional detective. In Florence to teach at a new international university, Homer stumbles on Bindo’s scheme while investigating the disappearance of a beautiful young student. His Italian may be lousy, but Homer is the only man who can save Italy from itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453252291
Publisher: Road
Publication date: 04/17/2012
Series: The Homer Kelly Mysteries , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 588,470
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Winner of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, Jane Langton (1922–2018) was an acclaimed author of mystery novels and children’s literature. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Langton took degrees in astronomy and art history before she began writing novels, and has set much of her fiction in the tight-knit world of New England academia.
She published her first novel, The Majesty of Grace, in 1961, and a year later began one of the young adult series that would make her famous: the Hall Family Chronicles. In The Diamond in the Window (1962) she introduced Edward and Eleanor, two New England children whose home holds magical secrets. Two years later, in The Transcendental Murder, Langton created Homer Kelly, a Harvard University professor who solves murders in his spare time. These two series have produced over two dozen books, most recently The Dragon Tree (2008), the eighth Hall Family novel.
Winner of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, Jane Langton (1922–2018) was an acclaimed author of mystery novels and children’s literature. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Langton took degrees in astronomy and art history before she began writing novels, and has set much of her fiction in the tight-knit world of New England academia.
She published her first novel, The Majesty of Grace, in 1961, and a year later began one of the young adult series that would make her famous: the Hall Family Chronicles. In The Diamond in the Window (1962) she introduced Edward and Eleanor, two New England children whose home holds magical secrets. Two years later, in The Transcendental Murder, Langton created Homer Kelly, a Harvard University professor who solves murders in his spare time. These two series have produced over two dozen books, most recently The Dragon Tree (2008), the eighth Hall Family novel.

Read an Excerpt

The Dante Game

By Jane Langton


Copyright © 1991 Jane Langton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-5229-1


As the geometer his mind applies To square the circle ...

Paradiso XXXIII, 133,134.

It was a matter of simple geometry.

On the tourist map of Florence the cathedral was a large pink blob like a polyhedron. A puzzled traveller could put a finger on the blob, look up at the red-tiled rooftops and find the dome rising above everything else, a great rounded octagonal shape like a segmented melon.

This year it was the point of intersection for an extraordinary convergence.

Along one line marched the Vatican Curia with all the pomp and splendor of a pontifical procession—His Holiness in white, accompanied by a crimson swirl of cardinals, sweeping across the pages of the calendar from one Easter celebration to the next. Behind them ran the Archbishop of Florence, trying to catch up.

Along another path trotted Leonardo Bindo, bowing and smiling, dapper and plump, with Matteo Luzzi strolling in his wake, encumbered by baggage—zippered cases of Rugers, Sigs, Winchesters, and a queer-looking assault rifle with a telescopic combat sight.

And there were other meandering paths. Sooner or later they too would conform themselves to the same course, and meet the following Easter at the Cathedral of Florence.

One was Julia Smith's. For Julia the cathedral was only a bright projected image on a screen in a college classroom in New York City. She watched as a warm breeze from the open window made the screen billow, while the instructor discussed the Problem of the Dome. I could go there, thought Julia. I could see it for myself. I could go to Italy in June.

This sort of decisiveness was unusual for Julia Smith. Normally Julia let things rise to the surface slowly. Dynamic action was not her best suit. Whatever other strong points she possessed were overshadowed by her beauty. If there was more to her than a perfect surface, it took a while to find it. From the very beginning when every good fairy had hovered over her cradle, Julia had attracted admiring attention. She had been a strapping baby. Her DNA molecules were packed with sparkling chromosomes, a gene of perfection governing all the rest.

Now she had grown into the promise of that perfection. There was a liquid depth to her eye, a glow to the round curve of her cheek, a delicacy of nose and mouth, a luxuriance of curling yellow hair, an exuberance of breast and hip.

It had been a burden to her, as she grew up into it. By the time she was thirteen Julia had become wary of her own blossoming. She was pestered everywhere. She couldn't go out for dinner with her parents without attracting the attention of some old lecher at another table. She would feel his ogling gaze and dread the moment when he would come across the floor and say to her father, "Your daughter is a very pretty girl."

Here in this college classroom she was older than the other kids sprawled around her in the heavy chairs—old enough to have lived through a number of vicissitudes, including the deaths of her parents, a short unhappy marriage and several turbulent affairs. She had been scalded, she had scalded in return. Finally, emerging from a crude episode with the police, she had abandoned all that and gone back to school.

By this time Julia had learned to protect herself. With her friends she carried on a comfortable kind of easy kidding. On the street she wore heavy trousers, thick canvas shoes and oversized men's shirts trailing below the hip. She was handy with a screwdriver and a soldering iron. She could repair a tape deck or a bicycle, replace a spark plug, change a tire. She was cautious. She knew how easily she could cut a swath. She had learned to sit back and wait, to see what happened, to hold in check her own impulsive affection.

This spring there had been too many clumsy encroachments. Julia felt dragged down, as though a couple of folding chairs had entangled themselves in her clothing and were bumping awkwardly behind her.

Now, staring up at the cut-away diagram of Brunelleschi's dome, she thought, I could get away. I could go to Florence and see all that.

As for the building itself, rising out of Tuscany like a man-made hill of marble, it had been nearly seven centuries since the poet Dante Alighieri had witnessed the laying of the foundation. For six hundred and ninety-nine years the Cathedral of Florence had sailed ponderously around the sun, swinging in orbit with other massive mountains—the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Pike's Peak—its southern side exposed to the light, its northern flank perpetually in shadow.


Come, we have far to go; let us advance.

Inferno IV, 22.

The crack of the mallet that started all these balls rolling in the direction of the Cathedral of Florence was an announcement by the pope on Easter Sunday morning. From the balcony of the Apostolic Palace, addressing the crowd gathered below him on Saint Peter's Square, he launched a new crusade, an Anno Sacro Anti-droga, a Holy Year Against Drugs.

The announcement was followed at once by a television drive, an international campaign on Vatican Radio, and an official poster, an image of His Holiness embracing a repentant young addict.

Copies of the poster were carried by truck, local train, country bus, donkey and camel to every parish church, along cart tracks in the Sonora Desert, along the coast of Kenya to Mombasa, up the Orinoco to high settlements in the Andes. Wherever young people gathered—in the bars of Miami, in the labyrinthine alleys of Calcutta, in the videogame arcades of Barcelona—the strong piping voice of the Holy Father was transmitted by satellite, repeating in all the languages at his command, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost."

It wasn't the announcement itself that was so astonishing, or the public relations campaign or the posters. It was the result. The crusade was working.

The cardinals were flabbergasted, and so were the citizens of Rome and indeed the entire population of Italy. Praise for the papal crusade poured in from New York, from Paris, from Tokyo. Mothers and fathers of every faith blessed the name of the Roman pontiff.

The frenzy of repentance began in Naples, where a saintly young man appeared out of nowhere, leading a ragtag band of boys and girls to Rome. They had sworn off, they said, they had given up amphetamines and heroin and cocaine and crack, and here they were in Saint Peter's Square, two thousand strong, seeking the blessing of the holy father. Legions of schoolchildren signed a pledge of purity. Never, never, never, they swore, would an illegal substance enter their bodies—mai, mai, mai! A powerful elected official in Turin made a public confession, "for the sake of the Christ child and the children of Italy." Drug offenders in prison gathered to pray. A strange wave of adolescent weeping spread around the world.

"His Holiness is a wonder-worker," said the Italian Minister for Public Health. "Here it is, still only the month of April, and already we see a sharp decline in the rate of new addiction."

"How astonishing!" marveled the Vatican prelate in charge of the crusade. "In our wildest dreams we never imagined such a miracle."


know thee, filthy as thou art ...

Inferno VIII, 39.

In some quarters there was less satisfaction with the extraordinary success of the crusade. Among the most disgruntled in the city of Florence was Leonardo Bindo. Signor Bindo was the manager of the Banca degli Innocenti in Piazza Santissima Annunziata. The bank was named for the ancient foundling hospital across the way, and the square for its local church.

On the rainy morning in mid-April when yet another pilgrimage arrived in Saint Peter's Square—this time it was a trainload of young penitents from Paris—Bindo sat at his desk in Florence looking gloomily at the Roman daily paper Il Messaggero. The front page showed a sea of heads, all turned in the direction of the faraway tiny figure of the Holy Father.

Bindo tossed the paper across the desk to Matteo Luzzi. "This morning I had to cancel a shipment. It was very expensive, but there was no use throwing good money after bad. God knows I've always supported His Holiness, but this is outrageous." Angrily he quoted Dante, "Rapacious wolves in shepherds' garb behold in every pasture!"

Matteo's choirboy face beamed with recognition. "Rapacious wolves—you mean the pope who threw Dante out of Florence and then turned up as a villain in The Divine Comedy, vero?"

Bindo laughed. "I'm reminded of the way your headmaster threw you out of that seminary. I'm glad your education wasn't altogether wasted." He looked with appreciation at Matteo's rosy cheeks and congratulated himself on finding someone so presentable. How lucky to have discovered a boy so proficient in a single useful calling and yet so winning at the same time!

Of course Matteo lacked Bindo's broad vision and large-scale grasp of things, but what could you expect of the son of a whore? Well, no, that was unfair. Matteo's mother was not a common prostitute. Bindo himself had known her in her professional capacity, and he was aware that her clientele was strictly upmarket. And young Matteo had profited from his mother's rich associations by picking up a few social graces, including a scrappy understanding of the English language.

Bindo rose and stared out at the rain beating down on the stony square. A nun in full habit hurried past the window, her long skirts lifting and plunging in the wind. "I think," he said portentously, "I have found someone to do what is required in this matter." He turned and looked accusingly at Matteo. "Since you refuse to handle it yourself."

Matteo lifted his hands in horror. "I told you. I'm not a believer, but even so, it would be tempting fate."

Bindo sighed, and sat down at his desk. "It's ironic. Roberto Mori is a priest, and yet he is willing."

Matteo looked surprised. "He's a priest?"

"A priest who has lost his calling, but still a priest. You understand"—Bindo looked piercingly at Matteo—"he has no knowledge of our concerns. He doesn't know me. And of course you must cherish his ignorance like the virginity of a young girl. He's never to know our private reasons for this action. The man's an idealist, a fool. His own motives are"—Bindo rolled his eyes at the ceiling—"idiotic, ridiculous, insane! But for our purposes they are precious, they are magnificent works of art. In the long run they will protect us. Fortunately he's here in Florence and available."

"Here in Florence?" Matteo raised his eyebrows. "What good will that do? Surely the action must be in Rome?"

Bindo smiled. "Ah, but I'm working on that matter with the assistance of my friend the archbishop."

"The archbishop? You don't mean the Archbishop of Florence? But he's a very holy man. Surely he would not—"

"The holiness of the archbishop is our good fortune." And then Bindo recited his favorite maxim, "All things can be made to serve." He looked up as his secretary popped in to say that Signor Zibo was waiting in the outer office. "Un momento," he told her. Bending forward as she left the room, he gave Matteo his instructions.

Matteo listened, and murmured his questions, and listened some more, and nodded.

"Here's the letter," said Bindo. "And wait. Give him this too." He stuffed a wad of bills into a manila envelope.

"But it must be a million lire," said Matteo.

Bindo looked at him severely. "I will require a receipt for the exact amount, and his signature. Is that understood?"

"Oh, si." Matteo stood up sullenly.

"Stop, don't use the street door. Go out the other way."

Impatiently Bindo watched Matteo leave the office. Then he hurried to the door separating him from the main chamber of the bank where the tellers were doing business. Throwing it open, he welcomed his next visitor.

"Buon giorno, Professor Zibo. You've come to sign the lease. What a great day it must be for you! Now your new school can begin. I'm happy to see the property of the city of Florence put to such a good use."

Settling his guest in a chair, Bindo jerked open a drawer and produced the lease, a contract between the Comune di Firenze and Giovanni Zibo, and smoothed it on the table with the pink palm of his hand. "The American School of Florentine Studies, it sounds very splendid. They'll be doctoral candidates, your students? Teachers, professors?"

Zee suppressed an urge to whip out his sketchbook and get down on paper Signor Bindo's wonderful roundness, his spherical head, his goggling eyes. His pencil twitched in his pocket, eager to inscribe circles for those chubby cheeks, that cozy chin. "No, no, most of the students will be young undergraduates, taking their third college year abroad."

Zee scribbled his name on the lease, and Bindo looked solemn. "You understand, Professor Zibo, the city is not responsible for any unsatisfactory condition of the Villa L'Ombrellino. The comune rents it to you at this low figure because the renovations for the new trade center are incomplete. When the city is ready to continue, your school must vacate the premises. Is that understood?"

"I trust the roof won't fly off in the next breeze?"

The banker frowned. "Professor Zibo, I thought you understood the terms as we outlined them the other day?"

"No, no, I was only joking."

Outside the bank and all over the city of Florence it was raining harder than ever. Falling drops struck the yellow water of the Arno in a million steely shafts, and battered the red-tiled rooftops on both sides of the river. The Lungarno arcade was empty. No one was making pastel portraits of tourists or rendering the Ponte Vecchio in watercolor. A queue of shivering Norwegians waited to enter the Uffizi. Above the low skyline of the city the dome of the cathedral rose wet and red to the platform of the lantern, where a few tourists huddled in slickers and hooded jackets, worn out by their long climb up the four hundred and sixty-three steps of the narrow curving stairs.

Zee came out of the bank and paused in the doorway to pull out his sketchbook and note down the pleasing spherical forms of Signor Bindo.

Mist collected on his drawing, blown from the fountains in the center of the square. Zee mopped it off with his sleeve, and thought of the third circle of the Inferno, where it rained all the time, one ceaseless, heavy, cold, accursed quench. Like Leonardo Bindo and Matteo Luzzi, Zee could quote Dante. For him it was not merely part of the mental equipment of an educated Italian, it was the great occupation of a lifetime, one of the two driving forces that got him up in the morning and urged him through the day and sent him to bed at night.

The other was a collection of wretched memories.

Now with the signing of the lease for the new school, an unknown and unsuspected third force was about to enter his life. Dante would have called it one of the teeth by which the love of higher things grips the soul, a ratchet revolving the heart toward God.

In Dante's case the ratchet had been a woman of Florence, Beatrice Portinari. For Zee it would be an American woman, a student in his new school. But whether she would become for him one of those earthly objects by which the soul is hooked, or merely a random piece of carnal folly, only time would tell. At this moment Giovanni Zibo was unaware that she existed.

Putting away his sketchbook, he bowed his head and hurried out into the rain.

And ran smack into another pedestrian. There was a jarring shock, and Zee staggered back. "Mi scusi."

A tall man in a Milwaukee Brewers cap was holding his head and muttering, "Jesus."

"Are you all right?" said Zee in English. "I am so sorry. Can I help you?"

Rain beat down on both of them. The man looked bewildered. He fumbled with the camera around his neck. "Oh, God, I don't know. I'm looking for the Doomo."

"Duomo," corrected Zee politely, and he pointed to the dome of the cathedral rising conspicuously above the housetops on the southwest side of the square.

"Oh, is that it? Oh, hell, I already been there. Jesus, look at the rain. I thought this place was supposed to be so, you know, beautiful." The tourist waved a cold blue hand at the rain-soaked facade of the foundling hospital, where the nine arches of Brunelleschi's arcade rested serenely upon their ten perfect columns. "Back in Milwaukee this would be a park, with, you know, trees. What's so great about this?" Turning his back on the sporting sea creatures in the fountains, he stared at the melancholy carriages waiting for passengers, the sodden horses drooping their heads. "It don't look beautiful to me."


Excerpted from The Dante Game by Jane Langton. Copyright © 1991 Jane Langton. Excerpted by permission of A
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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