First of a new series of crime novels set in Ancient Rome and featuring Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of much-loved Marcus Didius Falco.
Based on real historical events: mysterious poisonings, in which victims died, often unaware they had been attacked. Albia is now 28 and an established female investigator. Her personal history and her British birth enable her to view Roman society and its traditions as a bemused outsider and also as a woman struggling for independence in a man’s world.
The first novel takes place on the plebeian Aventine Hill, with its mix of monumental temples, muddy back lanes and horrible snack bars. We meet Albia’s personal circle – some familiar, some new. We glimpse old haunts and hear of old friends, but the focus is on Albia herself, a tough, witty, winning personality who fearlessly tackles inhumanity and injustice, braving any risks and winning the friendship of unexpected allies.
Davis grew up in Birmingham, and has had a long association with the Birmingham and Midland Institute in the City Centre. She signs copies of her books, so that the BMI can sell copies in the shop, and here is where I picked up this copy. The Falco series finished with the Nemesis book, this is the first in the Albia series, where she is Falco’s adopted daughter.
This is a new take on an already established world, allowing the author to see historical Rome from the outside. It is set during the rule of Domitian, a tyrant, whose gangs of thugs and enforcers roam the street at night, threatening and bulling people, and putting the populace on edge.
It starts with Albia investigating the death of a child who had been run over in the street, to protect the owner of the cart that ran him over. However it spirals out into a much wider investigation when people start dying hours after being seen out in the open, seemingly well and fine. There are no clues as to why they die – they are young and old, male and female, and from different social structures. Without a health service, Doctors or a regulated medical service it takes Albia to realise that the situation is bigger than anyone else realised (that there is a serial killer in town).
Running along side this investigation is the Roman holiday Cerealia (for the Goddess of Grain). Having been adopted, which culminates in stray foxes and fox like dogs being rounded up, tied together by the tails and sent out with blazing torches. Not knowing her actual date of birth, it is a date chosen to mark Albia’s birthday, a reason for including the detail in the book. The annual parade of women through the streets provides a nightmare scenario for Albia and her vigiles friends as they try to protect an unknown victim from an unknown killer. (Additional information on the holiday can be found here).
Falco is not seen or heard in this book, although Albia’s parents are mentioned regularly, Albia visits and stays over, and even babysits her younger brother on occasion (a task she doesn’t relish as he’s a snooty 11 year old boy). We get to see several levels of society, from the young fishermen shucking oysters on the quays, through educated freed slaves, the Vigiles – some of whom are ex gladiators who have been smart enough not to get killed (but little brighter), and up through wealthy matriarchs and Senate men.
Some people say they knew the killer long before Albia did, and that’s perhaps Albia was blinded by her feelings and not wanting to accept that she had been fooled and how close she was to events (and being killed herself). It’s been a long time since I read Nemesis, and even then it was one of the few Falco books that I had read. Therefore I cant remember if this style is typical of Davis or not. Some people simply dont like change…..This wasn’t my fastest read for a book of this size but it was enjoyable none the less
About this author
Her interest in history and archaeology led to her writing a historical novel about Vespasian and his lover Antonia Caenis (The Course of Honour), for which she couldn’t find a publisher. She tried again, and her first novel featuring the Roman “detective”, Marcus Didius Falco, The Silver Pigs, set in the same time period and published in 1989, was the start of her runaway success as a writer of historical whodunnits. A further nineteen Falco novels and Falco: The Official Companion have followed, as well as The Course of Honour, which was finally published in 1998. Rebels and Traitors, set in the period of the English Civil War, was published in September 2009. Davis has won many literary awards, and was honorary president of the Classical Association from 1997 to 1998.