THE DANTE GAME, Langton’s eighth Homer Kelly novel, brings her professor-detective to Italy to teach contemporary Italian literature at the American School of Florentine Studies. Housed in the Villa L’Ombrellino, the school overlooks a Florence as filled with vice and virtue as that of Dante’s city.
On the surface, virtue prevails. Leonardo Bindo, who lets the villa on generous terms, is apparently a banker and community leader of impeccable integrity. His enormous wealth, however, actually comes from illicit drug-trafficking. When the papal Holy Year Against Drugs threatens Bindo’s livelihood, the banker forms a blind conspiracy to assassinate the pope. The dupe assassin, Roberto Mori, is a dissident priest silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for his liberal views. Mori believes that like-thinking prelates in the Vatican are encouraging this audacious plot as a means of rescuing the Church from its hopelessly conservative leadership. Bindo is, in reality, the moving force, and his aims are not at all visionary.
Giovanni ("Zee") Zibo, founder and chief professor at the school, is not the visionary he seems either. His hidden past includes an unsavory murder trial. Though Zibo had not killed his wife and though he was acquitted, the notoriety effectively destroyed his teaching career in the United States. Teaching Dante to Americans in the Villa L’Ombrellino is Zibo’s own partly visionary enterprise. It is also a last chance to practice his profession.
Julia Smith, one of Zibo’s students, becomes, by turns, Beatrice to Zibo as Dante; then his Francesca; then his Piccarda. She inspires the pure love of Beatrice, the lust of Francesca, and is kidnapped as part of the assassination plot. The game of the book’s title is not only the means Zibo uses to interest his students in Dante’s timeless poem; it is also the game a reader familiar with Dante plays in seeing the allegory on human experience which provides a subtext for Langton’s mystery.