Inspired by Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” this intriguing murder mystery and historical drama is set against the backdrop of the opulent 16th-century Ferrarese court. “The Second Duchess” refers to Barbara of Austria, the Holy Roman Emperor’s daughter who married Duke Alfonso d’Este in the city-state of Ferrara, Italy, in December 1565. At age 26, Barbara’s only other option was to join a convent.
Barbara enters Ferrara on her wedding day, having heard rumors that Duke Alfonso poisoned his first wife, the young, beautiful, and promiscuous Lucrezia de’ Medici. The woman dressing her hair warns her that she must take care not to become a victim herself. Not wanting to anger Alfonso, Barbara attempts to ignore the rumors. Any talk of the first duchess is expressly forbidden by the duke.
The new duchess soon realizes that her husband, when crossed, becomes angry and cruel. Once she witnesses his temper firsthand, she begins to believe the rumors. Is Alfonso dangerous enough to commit murder? He never loved Lucrezia , believing that the Medici family was inferior to the d’Este, and she cuckolded him. Could he really have killed her? Barbara struggles with her feelings, wanting to know what happened but fearful of her husband.
Barbara finally succumbs to her curiosity and starts investigating Lucrezia’s death. She knows, however, that Alfonso installed spies among her ladies-in-waiting, who are all too eager to bring about her downfall. She risks her husband’s terrible wrath – and possibly Lucrezia’s fate - in her attempt to uncover the truth, and someone will stop at nothing to prevent her from finding it.
Loupas masterfully recreates the world of the Renaissance court with its sumptuous costumes, lavish parties and decadent food. But she also convincingly portrays the seedier side of power, with its politics (d’Este versus Medici) and violence. Barbara is an intelligent and compelling narrator (Lucrezia de’ Medici gives her own testimony of events from beyond the grave), and she pulls the reader deeper into the mystery as she works to solve it. If you enjoy historical murder mysteries, I highly recommend The Second Duchess.