In the high summer of 77AD, Roman informer Marcus Didius Falco is beset by personal problems. Newly bereaved and facing unexpected upheavals in his life, it is a relief for him to consider someone else’s misfortunes. A middle-aged couple who supplied statues to his father, Geminus, have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. They had an old feud with a bunch of notorious freedmen, the Claudii, who live rough in the pestilential Pontine Marshes, terrorising the neighbourhood.
When a mutilated corpse turns up near Rome, Falco and his vigiles friend Petronius investigate, even though it means travelling in the dread marshes. But just as they are making progress, the Chief Spy, Anacrites, snatches their case away from them. As his rivalry with Falco escalates, he makes false overtures of friendship, but fails to cover up the fact that the violent Claudii have acquired corrupt protection at the highest level. Making further enquiries after they have been warned off can only be dangerous – but when did that stop Falco and Petronius?
Egged on by the slippery bureaucrats who hate Anacrites, the dogged friends dig deeper while a psychotic killer keeps taking more victims, and the shocking truth creeps closer and closer to home…
On a hot summer day in Rome, informer Marcus Didius Falco has twin tragedies strike him almost simultaneously. His son dies just hours after being born and when he takes his baby to be buried on his father’s property, he learns his father has also died.
Nominated as the principal heir to his father’s estate, he decides to try and clear up some of the business his father had left behind. Paying off a debt gives him some clues into the death of a man found mutilated in a mausoleum. This takes him and his family down into the violent ex-slave family, where brutality, violence and murder are the norm. It brings back terrible memories for his sister, and his wife feels vulnerable whilst trying to recover from the death of the son. Meanwhile, one side effect of his father’s death is trying to come to terms with the fact that he is now well off, despite the potential threat from the circus dancer’s unborn child, who may be his future brother and so inherit half of the estate.