The Devil & Maria d’Avalos

Written by Victoria Hammond
Review by Kathryn Kimball Johnson

The year is 1590; the setting rich with art, magnificent architecture, lavish costumes. Yet all is not right in Denmark… or, as it so happens, in Naples. We are invited into the sensual, dangerous love triangle formed by the famous Italian beauty Maria d’Avalos, her third husband and great composer Carlo Gesualdo, and Maria’s aristocratic lover, Fabrizio Carafa. We will follow the doomed relationship to its cruel and bloody end.

This novel succeeds on more than one level. As a realistic and lush representation of 16th-century Naples and its environs, it fascinates. As an imaginatively dramatized representation of a historically documented event, it is vivid and believable. And the quality of writing is more than proficient. The story is also an inspired piece of true crime fiction, drawing from written evidence of Maria’s murder and the circumstances leading to it.

For lovers of that mystery genre, those who enjoy delving into the dark lives and darker minds of murderers, their motives, and the violence they perpetrate, the story will satisfy. But because we know from the very start of the book how the story will end (since the author makes this very clear in the lengthy preface), something is taken away from the suspense Hammond works so hard to build. I found myself wanting not to have been told the ending. And even more so, I itched to rewrite Maria’s fate, wishing someone, anyone might rush in and save her at the last moment. Frustrating? Yes. But we do become invested in this beautiful woman’s fate, even though we know we can’t look forward to a happy ending. The author neither promises nor provides cheerful relief. And I guess that’s a lot like real life.