The novel takes place in Venzola, a fictional Italian resort village. Our hero, Hart Muldoon (ex-OSS, Irish international man-of-mystery), has been stranded there for some time - caught up in the town's aura of debauchery. Between drink and the ladies (including the foxy wife of a famous French director), Muldoon is finding it hard to move on.
Still, circumstances are set to force Muldoon's manly hand. Whilst on the verge of finally capturing (after three whole days) the hauntingly beautiful Elsa, Muldoon is side-tracked by the unfortunate appearance of a dead man in his hotel room. His romantic pursuits are momentarily set aside as Muldoon must solve the mystery of the corpse in his bedroom.
The first few chapters are a scattershot introduction to every major player on the island - including an American industrialist, a fascist count, a curvy blonde, lesbian financiers, a corrupt policeman, a sinister dressmaker (seriously) and a horde of righteous plebeian fishermen. Fortunately, as the book is a shade under 140 pages, things are rapidly connected. Before it gets too overwhelming, everything is mashed up into a single ball of plot and rolled gently towards Muldoon's feet.
This, frankly, is a godsend. Hart Muldoon may be the worst fictional detective in the history of detective fiction. His school of investigation is, at best, crude: walking into private offices and pointing fingers, asking people to their face if they killed someone and other, even less-impressive tricks. For some bizarre reason, the other characters in the book seem to take this seriously, rather than being utterly underwhelmed by his painful ignorance. When Muldoon actually finds a 'clue', it is generally because it is served to him on a silver platter by a criminal even more unsuited to their profession than Muldoon is to his.
By the end of the book, the climactic reveal and ultimate betrayals come as a surprise to no one - except, of course, the useless Muldoon, who is perpetually shocked by the obvious.
The most compelling character in Dear, Deadly Beloved is the village of Venzola. In-between Muldoon's reckless fumblings, the village comes to life. Flagg drops hints of its complicated political heritage, the thinly-veiled class warfare, its smatterings of culture and ancient traditions. The setting is as subtle and as complicated as the protagonist is not.
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