Written by Lindsey Davis — Historical novelist Lindsey Davis is best known for her series set in Ancient Rome, featuring Marcus Didius Falco. A few years back she retired her popular detective (or ‘imperial informer’, as the position was known back then) to make way for the enquiries of his adoptive daughter, Flavia Albia, and this is now the fifth book to feature the new generation.
Flavia Albia has just married but her newly-wed bliss is immediately curtailed by a freak accident during the bridal procession. Her husband, Tiberius Manlius Faustus, a sensible and kindly aedile (public official) is struck by lightning and may be permanently disabled and unable to earn money. So, with a new house to furnish and a household of servants to set up, Flavia has no choice but to accept a commission from palace officials to help uncover a possible plot against the emperor.
This is no longer the Rome of Vespasian and Titus that Falco knew. The new emperor, Domitian, is paranoid and tyrannical, so everyone has to tread very carefully during their investigations. What Domitian fears is a resurgence of pro-Nero sentiment and a challenge to his dominance. He is ready to trample over everyone and anyone with even tangential knowledge of this conspiracy.
Emperor Nero, who apparently played the lyre while Rome burned, has become synonymous with all the excesses of Imperial Rome. Then, as today, conspiracy theories tantalised the populace. This story takes place in 89 AD, 20 years after Nero’s death, but plenty of people still want to believe that Nero is alive and will return to reclaim his throne. Or, perhaps someone else is destabilising Domitian’s rule?
At least three pretenders have been unmasked, and Flavia is hired to find out more about the latest plot from the widows of two suspected traitors. It soon becomes obvious that Parthia, the powerful empire to the east of the Roman Empire covering present-day Iran and Iraq, is involved in this latest attempt to bring back a Nero figure. But of course nothing is ever straightforward in this game of personal and political power struggles, deviousness and international spying. Inevitably, the extent to which Flavia is free to wander the streets of Rome and participate in some of the most secret discussions does strain believe. Women were undoubtedly excluded from such matters at the time.
That aside, Flavia is an appealing, independent, no-nonsense kind of character and the story is enjoyable, particularly in the way it echoes some of the issues we recognise in the present day. Parallels with the immigration debate are clear. There is a friendly welcome to Parthians coming to Rome, but also a barely disguised fear that their unstoppable hordes will come galloping from the Euphrates to swamp borders and obliterate the Roman way of life. There is speculation that even if Rome were to conquer Parthia one day, it would never have the resources to control those vast territories, whose rules and social systems are so different from their own. There are perhaps too many historical explanations and descriptions, which prevent the story from truly taking flight. At the same time, Flavia is slightly more solemn a character than her father Falco, not quite as funny or Chandleresque, so I found myself missing him to a certain extent.
For those familiar with either the Falco or the Flavia Albia books, this will be a good solid addition to the catalogue, though not necessarily among the best of the series. If you have never read Lindsey Davis before, you are best off starting with the early Falco novels such as The Silver Pigs or Shadows in Bronze or the first in the Flavia series, The Ides of April.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 3 Stars