Review 1356: The Ides of April

Cover for The Ides of AprilFor a long time, I followed Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Davis knows her period, and the books are amusing, but after a while I got tired of them. A few friends have recommended her newer Flavia Alba series, so when I found the first one at the library, I decided to try it.

Flavia Alba is the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, who adopted her as an abandoned and wild fifteen-year-old in Britain on one of their cases. Hence, I was vaguely aware of her in some of the Falco books. At the beginning of The Ides of April, she is a young widow who has become an enforcer in her adoptive father’s footsteps.

As a female enforcer, she doesn’t get the best cases. She is trying to get her client, Salvidia, off the hook in a lawsuit against her company for running down a young boy. The aedile, Manlius Faustus, has advertised for witnesses to the accident, so she goes to his office to find out if anyone has left a statement. At the office, she encounters two key characters, Tiberius, who works for the aedile, and Andronicus, an archivist, with whom she begins a flirtation.

Flavia Alba’s case very soon becomes more sinister as she learns that her client, Salvidia, is dead of no apparent cause. A visit to the undertaker leads her to understand that a lot of healthy people are dying for no apparent reason. She begins investigating these deaths despite being warned off by the aedile’s office, but soon she is working with them in the person of Tiberius.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed this book in some ways, there was nothing new here. Flavia Alba’s jaunty, flippant first person sounds exactly like Falco’s. Davis avoids too much repetition by hardly mentioning Flavia Alba’s parents, even when she goes to visit them, but by then I would have been happy to meet them again.

As to the mystery, there is one character with a hidden identity that was obvious to me, and I was onto the murderer fairly quickly, at least mistrusting this character almost immediately. The story arc is very similar to Davis’s first book, Silver Pigs, in that the main character encounters someone who may be a future love interest.

So, for me anyway, been there, done that.

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Day 975: Master & God

Cover for Master & GodFor many years I faithfully read Lindsey Davis’s entertaining mystery series set in ancient Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco and his lovely wife Helena Justina. I only stopped reading after about 20 books because I was a little tired of the situation. Still, I occasionally pick up one of the series.

So, when I saw that Davis wrote a straight historical novel about the reigns of Domitian and Vespasian and Titus (Domitian’s father and brother), this seemed perfect to me. The novel covers the whole of the Emperor Domitian’s reign and has as its main characters Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a Praetorian guard, and Flavia Lucilla, a hairdresser.

And this was a bit of a problem. I initially had a hard time getting into this novel, and one reason, I think, was the sort of bifurcated story of Domitian’s reign. Gaius Vinius and Flavia Lucilla are just too far removed from the action to integrate them successfully into this story. The result is that the bulk of the novel is exposition, pages and pages of the author telling us what’s going on rather than events being told through the story of its characters.

Later, the two main characters become more important to the general thrust of the novel, and it improves. But for most of the novel, we’re left with a two-pronged approach, Domitian’s reign on the one hand and the romance between the two main characters on the other. This approach even becomes three-pronged during several years when Gaius Vinius is prisoner in Dacia. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with Colleen McCullough’s excellent Master of Rome series (about Sulla, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony), or even better, Robert Harris’s series about Cicero (reviews upcoming).

This isn’t to say that I didn’t eventually settle down and enjoy the novel. I did. I just didn’t think it was one of Davis’s best. Occasionally, a hint of her trademark sardonic humor appears, but overall, I feel that she struggles to keep the novel moving.

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Day 165: Alexandria

Cover for AlexandriaFor years I avidly collected all of Lindsey Davis’s Didius Falco mysteries. My passion has cooled a bit, as it usually does for series mysteries, but I still enjoy them enough to pick them up when I find them.

Marcus Didius Falco is a cynical, rascally, wisecracking “informer” during the Roman Empire of Vespasian. I have followed his path from the first book when he met Helena Justina, the fiery, unconventional daughter of a senator. Falco has had to work his way up from the plebeian rank and earn enough money so that he can legally be permitted to marry her.

In Alexandria, the 19th novel in this series, Falco and Helena Justina have been married for awhile when they travel to Alexandria with their two daughters, their adopted teenage daughter, and their mongrel dog for a vacation and visit to his uncle. Almost immediately upon arrival Falco is plunged into an investigation when his uncle’s dinner guest of the night before, Theon, the head of the famed library, is found dead, locked in his own office.

Of course, Falco has to figure out how Theon was murdered and why. He soon finds that several of the library’s scholars may want Theon’s job. Of course, people begin dropping like flies, including a philosophy student who is mauled by a crocodile. Falco begins to suspect that something else might be going on.

Davis’s books always involve a multitude of interesting, shifty characters and lots of dirty politics and other shenanigans, and Falco is always engaging and amusing. Davis does a convincing job of re-creating the ancient world in her books.

If you are interested in this series, I recommend that you start with the first book, Silver Pigs (recently renamed The Silver Pigs). Although the mysteries are stand-alone, developments in Falco’s personal life make it more enjoyable if you read this series in order.