Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger


This novel was first published in 1947.  It’s still in print – or at any rate was reprinted by Bridge Works in 2002, and probably again since.  There are reasons for that.  First, it has all the characteristics of a rip-snortingly readable, fast-moving historical pulp adventure.  Next, it has a great cast of characters.  Last, it is even quality writing!

It’s set in Renaissance Italy, circa 1500, the time of Cesare Borgia.  The main character is charming and mysterious Andrea, a Renaissance man to the core, artist, soldier, diplomat, and agent of the chilling Cesare, but with a hidden past and, as the instrument designer Lorenzo says of him in the first chapter, “too many faces.”

Before starting the novel, Shellabarger read reams of the literature, records and documents from the actual times.  The language of diplomacy and social manners, then even more than now, was unctuous, extravagant and phoney.  No flattery was too extreme, no lie too low, no promise too hollow.  Shellabarger captures it exactly.  His fictional Andrea is a master.  Still, being intelligent and complex, Andrea is not immune to the attractions of honest, decent dealing, especially towards people he admires.

Even very minor characters, who appear once or twice and never again, are well drawn and convincing, like the designer of musical instruments, Lorenzo, and the magistrate of Viterbo, whom Andrea neatly manipulates.  (A notable and jarring exception is the blackamoor child-servant, Seraph, depicted as nothing more than a grinning, eye-rolling darkie.  Ouch.  True, Seraph IS a child, but still it’s one aspect of the book that does not transcend its 1947 date.)

If you like suave, lethal intrigue, there is loads of it.  If you like battles, there are those too.  If you like smooth duels of wits with life or death as the stakes, PRINCE OF FOXES abounds in them.  There is a memorable single combat, too, between Andrea and Pierre Terrail du Bayard, the most famous chevalier of France.  (“Without Fear and Without Reproach”?  Yes.  THAT Bayard.)

On that occasion, Andrea fights the duel to save his henchman, Mario Belli, from being lynched by a group of French nobles for treason against their king, of which he’s flagrantly guilty.  (His real name is Marius de Montbel.)  Andrea and Belli originally met when Belli tried to murder him, hired by a Ferrarese ambassador.  The attempt failed, due to Andrea’s prowess, and when Belli revealed who hired him, Andrea feigned appalled shock.

“‘I had dinner with him that evening.  He was all smiles and caresses.  Ah, Messer Mario, the wickedness of the world makes me weep.  The corruption of this age is unbelievable.’

“‘Very bad,’ Belli assented, shaking his head.”

Belli himself is a complex character with unexpected facets.  His face is as ugly as his lethal hands are shapely and beautiful, an outward sign of his inner conflicts.  As Andrea ponders at one point, he shows no traits of drunkenness or lechery.  “A more complete reprobate would have been easier to understand … The mainspring of evil in Belli seemed to be hatred, rebellion, a vendetta against life.  Such a man takes watching at all times.”

Then there’s the cast of female characters, which for a pleasant change is sizeable and varied.  Lucrezia Borgia, twenty years old in the novel, is depicted (I think fairly) as more sinned against than sinning, a political tool of her ruthless brother and their father, the Pope.  Her cousin and companion Angela is shown as beautiful and elegant, which she was, but also as a trollop with a coarse, violent streak.

Andrea’s love interest, Camilla, is charming, spirited, and definitely gutsy for a 1947 novel.  She’s also mischievous and a practical joker; more than once her pranks outfox the master fox Andrea.  However, she’s honest and direct, and this quality of hers has Andrea perplexed at first, though he tells himself that “what she needed … was experience.”  In the event, it’s Camilla who provides him with the experience, of loyalty, in what Andrea himself acknowledged, if with tongue in cheek, was a corrupt age.

Andrea’s mother Costanza is a strong-willed person too, who warns him against the dangers of living a masquerade and lie.  “The man who built his house on sand,” she says.  “That’s your case.”  There is also Camilla’s dwarf dancer, Alda, to whom Camilla shows kindness but, as a person of her age, also sees as somewhat less than human.  In an interesting touch, only Belli treats Alda as an equal, his startling facial ugliness, and her diminutive size, giving them some-thing in common.  When the notorious hired killer passes the word among the household that if Alda is mistreated, he won’t be pleased, people naturally listen.  And there is the saintly but far from mawkish nun, Lucia da Narni, a tranquil stigmatic who impresses even Andrea and Mario.  As Shellabarger observes, they would not have belonged to their age otherwise.  Sister Lucia is certainly a more holy Christian than her contemporary the Borgia pope!

I’m not about to spoil the climax when Andrea, captured and out of favour, is condemned to a vile fate by Borgia.  But read that far.  I doubt you’ll be able to put the book down before then anyway.

The novel was made into a movie in 1949, with Tyrone Power as Andrea, Wanda Hendrix as Camilla, and Orson Welles as Borgia.