An Exclusive Essay by Author Michael Ennis
I began The Malice of Fortune with the rather modest ambition of writing a novel that featured Machiavelli as a detective; perhaps he could use the precepts of The Prince to solve a crime. As I dove into my research, I soon took particular interest in the closing months of the year 1502, when Machiavelli was a junior Florentine diplomat at the court of Cesare Borgia, the celebrated "Duke Valentino," who at the time was playing this deadly political chess game against a cabal of mercenary warlords known as the condottieri--a bloody political drama that Machiavelli would later place at the very center of The Prince.
Although Valentino's court was located in the remote fortress city of Imola during those final months of 1502, it attracted all sorts of interesting and nefarious characters, among them the Duke's innovative military engineer, Leonardo da Vinci. And after a little more digging, I discovered some intriguing connections between Leonardo and Machiavelli: they both abruptly left Duke Valentino's court shortly after the end of the year, under circumstances that historians have never fully understood, and then worked quite closely together in Florence. So clearly some mysterious and fraught relationship developed between them in Imola.
Still thinking in terms of a detective story, I envisioned something akin to a Holmes & Holmes partnership. Leonardo, who famously dissected corpses, could be a Renaissance forensic pathologist. As for Machiavelli, his political science is so deeply rooted in the study of human nature that he can also be considered a pioneer in the field of psychology. In fact, I was rather startled to learn that at the time he was working on The Prince, Machiavelli wrote a friend that when he entered his study, he imagined himself physically in the presence of prominent figures from history: "I converse with them and interrogate them about the motives for their actions. And they answer me--I get inside them completely." This sounded so uncannily like a modern criminal profiler that I just couldn't resist pushing the detective conceit a step further.
So here I started searching for a crime, but one based entirely on documented fact; if Leonardo's and Machiavelli's forensic abilities could be found in their actual studies, the crime – and the criminal – had to be equally authentic. I pored over five hundred year old cold cases and instead of just one crime, I discovered an entire "crime cluster" that began with the murder of the Pope's son in Rome, followed by a horrifying litany of related abductions, rapes, mutilations, and murders. As for the suspects, several powerful, violent men, most of them these mercenary condottieri, could be circumstantially linked to all the crimes. More remarkably still, each of these suspects is mentioned specifically by name in The Prince, all of them having played leading roles in the events at the end of 1502 – and all of them were known personally by both Leonardo and Machiavelli.
This evidence brought my sleuthing-geniuses premise squarely back into the domain of documented history: I had discovered a true crime story – involving, as it turns out, a brilliant serial killer--interlaced with one of history's pivotal political events. Although this was a story Machiavelli, for very good reasons, decided to keep to himself, The Prince contains artifacts of it, once you know what you are looking for. As Machiavelli confesses to us at the beginning of his narrative, there is a "terrifying secret I deliberately buried between the lines of The Prince." The words are my creation, but they are based on admissions that Machiavelli made later in his life. The truth that can be found between the lines of The Prince – a revelation of man's capacity for evil far more ghastly than anything Machiavelli wrote explicitly in the text--is no mere fictional invention. With consequences that have resounded throughout the subsequent course of Western culture and history, the dreadful secret of The Prince is all too real.
"Absorbing and intelligent... Fans of superior historical mystery writers such as Steven Saylor and Laura Jo Rowland will be enthralled." —Publishers Weekly (boxed, starred review)
“A hefty novel about the politics of 16th-century Italy [that] reads like a pulpy mystery… A thrilling whodunit—and a pretty good primer on da Vinci’s ‘science of observation’ as well as Machiavelli’s ‘science of man.’” —Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
“Ennis is an uncommonly graceful writer and a conscientious researcher… his story zips along, a pleasure.” —Charles Finch, USA Today
“Ennis bring[s] multiple layers of authenticity to his epic novel. It’s a heady mix of “The Da Vinci Code,” Borgia politics and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Think of it as CSI: Italy circa 1502, with Machiavelli as a detective and psychological profiler and da Vinci as history’s first forensic pathologist.” —Christian DuChateau, CNN
“An intricate murder mystery and political thriller [with] a heartrending love story… Like the best historical fiction, the novel transports the reader entirely elsewhere.” —Laura Pearson, Time Out Chicago
“Intricate, rewarding… The Malice of Fortune is reminiscent of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in that the intrigue is rich and is inextricably entwined in its world. Amid these walls of power the reader no more loses sight of the danger of the game than of the need to solve the puzzle. The novel works not just because it is a finely wrought history but because the characters are of their time while transcending it.” —Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post
“A novel that ranks among the best with the Italian Renaissance setting…. The narrative brims with minor details that convey authenticity and authority over the material…. Ennis brings the characters alive with impassioned dialogue.” —David Hendricks, San Antonio Express
“Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli join their considerable forces in this teeming historical thriller… They make an exceptional team.” —Sheryl Connelly, New York Daily News
“With its vivid, well-defined array of characters, The Malice of Fortune captures the glorious and gritty details of Renaissance Italy in a propulsive story. Ennis has achieved a great accomplishment, historical fiction that places us right into the characters' present.” —Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Technologists
“The Malice of Fortune is more than a thriller--it's a tender love story, a grim exploration of the nature of human evil, and an immersive tour of Renaissance Italy as courageous, perceptive young Niccolo Machiavelli fights for his life against ruthless Borgia factions. A novel written with gusto, panache, and intellectual rigor.” —Lyndsay Faye, author of Gods of Gotham and Dust and Shadows
"A true masterpiece... Michael Ennis has poured the knowledge and wisdom of many lifetimes into the exquisite form of a mystery so dark, so labyrinthine. The Malice of Fortune is stunning, terrifying, and utterly mesmerizing. I can honestly say I never fully appreciated the genius of Machiavelli, or the savagery of the Borgias, until now." —Anne Fortier, author of Juliet
“Michael Ennis bring the Renaissance alive in this tour-de-force: The Malice of Fortune dishes out a simmering stew, thick with chicanery, bloodshed, dastardly deeds, code-breaking, puzzle-solving, and a cast of characters that includes Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini, Cesare Borgia—and Damiata, the real-life courtesan whose brassiness, brains, and beauty dazzle even her employer and nemesis: the Pope.” —Katherine Neville, author of The Eight and The Fire
“For readers who've been waiting all these years for the next The Name of the Rose—here it is. Michael Ennis brings a scholar’s mind and a writer’s heart to this beautifully crafted work of Renaissance intrigue that has a rare quality of feeling ancient and modern at the same time. A powerful thinking-man’s thriller.” —Glenn Cooper, author of Library of the Dead and Book of Souls
“This is a fascinating novel, filled with extraordinary, well-realized historical characters and a plot that is engrossing and wickedly clever. The Malice of Fortune is an excellent, beautifully researched, and well-written novel that has a fine, fine sense of place. It captured my attention up front and kept me turning the pages to the very end." —Douglas Preston, co-author of The Monster of Florence
“Intriguing [and] well-researched...Ennis, a former art-history teacher, is an expert on Renaissance Italy. Everything in [Malice] is based on actual events and Ennis' fictional conceit - that Machiavelli and da Vinci work together to stop a powerful serial killer - shape[s] Holmes-and-Watson duos out of historical figures. Having Machiavelli cast in the role of what Ennis calls ‘history's first forensic profiler’ will satisfy those who come for the period ambience.” —Booklist