The Queen’s Gambit by Diane A.S. Stuckart

The Queen’s Gambit by Diane A.S. Stuckart.  A small debate has arisen within the Crime Thru Time Yahoo group about the nature of mysteries as opposed to other genres.  Part of this discussion centers on how soon in the story the crime takes place with some authors feeling that it is important to develop the setting and the characters before starting the investigative process.  Personally, I find that too few authors have the skill to hold readers’ interest for hundreds of pages by merely describing the daily lives of their actors. 

In her debut mystery, Stuckart chooses to avoid that challenge by presenting the murder victim, the Conte di Ferrara, on the very first page.  The count, dressed in the white vestments of a bishop for a large-scale live chess match on the grounds of his cousin the duke of Milan, is found stabbed in a private garden during a break in the game.  Was he the intended victim or could the blade have been meant for the other white bishop?  Or perhaps for the real archbishop that the count was portraying and who is also a guest at the Castle Sforza?  Was this a political assassination related to the count’s upcoming role as Milan’s envoy to France or was there a more personal motive as the count’s indiscretions with the ladies of the court were well-known?

Stuckart does choose to attempt a different and quite demanding challenge for mystery writers: that of using a real historical figure as the investigator.  In 1483, the duke of Milan had in his employ the artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci and it is to him that the duke assigns the task of finding the count’s killer.  Our narrator is Dino, one of da Vinci’s apprentices, who discovers the body and assists the master in his investigation. 

The daily activity of the artist’s workshop and the role of apprentices are nicely rendered in this story and we do see glimpses of Leonardo’s character and genius throughout the story, but by using an apprentice as narrator, we don’t really get inside the head of Leonardo and see how this fantastic mind really worked.  Fortunately, Dino is an interesting character with a complex background.  There is plenty of suspense throughout the book, though I found the ultimate solution a bit complicated for my tastes.

For readers who enjoy having a historical figure investigating mysteries, I recommend Robert Lee Hall’s series with Benjamin Franklin, Roberta Gellis’ excellent stand-alone with Lucrezia Borgia, Karen Harper’s series with Elizabeth Tudor, Oakley Hall’s series with Ambrose Bierce, or Peter Heck’s series with Mark Twain.  For a lighter tale, try Ron Goulart’s series featuring Groucho Marx as master detective.

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