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This is the 18th of Davis' 'Falco' series, a set of books which follow the activities and 'investigations' of Marcus Didius Falco, a private investigator in Rome during Vespasian's reign. I have never read any of these books previously so I am unable to comment on how this compares to her earlier or later books. I should also note that this is not a book I would usually select for myself; it was a book group pick and I eyed the choice with reluctance. I like reading about history, but in a factual form, not fictionalised. (It seems to me that many writers find it hard to tread the line between slipping in appropriate historical detail and simply flinging historical facts and settings at your reader to convince them that you have done a suitable amount of research.) Could this fictional romp through Rome impress me?
== The premise...and reality ==
Set during the rowdy festival of Saturnalia, a time when (carefully selected) slaves could act as master for a day or a feast, Falco's mission is to locate Veleda, a German captive who seems to have escaped from her 'captivity' in a noble household. The apprehension is even more essential since her departure coincided with the discovery of a severed head in the house's swimming pool. Locating the escapee and establishing the truth about the head is complicated by several facts, not least of which is the authority's reluctance to admit publicly that the Barbarian Veleda has escaped, or indeed was even in Rome in the first place. Furthermore, Falco's brother-in-law, Justinus has disappeared after a(nother) row with his young wife and the general suspicion is that he is also looking for Veleda, who may be the love of his life. Oh, and Veleda is ill and may even be dying, which must be prevented...so that she can be killed publicly during a parade (or 'triumph') for the general who captured her. Can Falco capture Veleda without revealing she is on the loose and save his brother-in-law's marriage? Meanwhile, homeless people are dying at a rather worrying rate around the local area. Could someone be on a mission to destroy them? Or have they been murdered in order to carry out prohibited post-mortem examinations?
So Falco is a daring detective who fights to rid Rome of crime...except that he's not. Instead, he's a wisecracking family man whose main idea of investigative work seems to be to sit in a bar and wait for a lead to arrive. There is an awful lot going on in the book and most of it is family related or to do with job politics (as in, making sure you keep it). Sometimes Falco's wife, Helena, seems to be more of a PI than he is, although in fairness her gender allows her entry to places Falco can't access. The first chapter sets the scene by showing the detective with his father. The father declares a shocking piece of family news which Falco patiently listens to, they discuss family matters, then there is a kind of punch line at the end of the chapter which did make me giggle. Clearly, Pa likes to stir up trouble. This is really the focus of the book, with a bit of crime thrown in for extra flavour. This is not intended as a criticism, more an observation that although this was 'sold' to me as crime fiction, it is really more of a family/historical saga.
As I read the book I often giggled out loud at the Marcus' comments. As the narrator, he presents his own personal view of the world throughout. This means that the reader is treated to advice like "You'll never persuade the guild treasurer to admit he defrauded the funeral club so he could take three girlfriends to Lake Trasimene, if you are absolutely bursting to relieve yourself." During one drunken party our hero sees "a tightly knotted group that included the man dressed as a turnip, whose friends were holding him down and pouring cups of wine into him (through his topknot of leaves) as if it was some kind of dangerous dare". I think it was the level of detail that made me giggle: I could really imagine the turnip dressed man wriggling about while his friends attempted to hold him sufficiently still to achieve their objective.
So it's humorous and the political negotiations are convincingly Machiavellian and, well, political. The family tensions are convincing and well portrayed. The weak spot really is the crime element. Falco's half hearted investigating is one thing, but the actual answer was a bit odd and everything seemed rather downbeat, despite the constant cliff-hangers at the end of chapters. As a PI with opinions, Falco does not seem particularly keen to capture Veleda, which may account for the sense of sloth that hangs around his work. Perhaps other books in the series have better central crimes and detective work? I don't know, but I wasn't interested in the crime element at all. It seemed too un-urgent and politicised. Fortunately, the comic elements kept me relatively entertained, but it was slow going and I stopped reading this book for weeks at a time to read others that captured my interest better. I did finish it eventually, but I could have easily not if I didn't have this ridiculous compulsion to finish ALL books I start reading.
Other minor irritations were the dialogue, the geography and the chapter endings. The dialogue seemed too modern; although obviously it needs to be written in a tone that will engage modern readers and that doesn't necessitate constant referencing of a glossary, I didn't really get the feel of ancient Rome (this is set in AD 76). Instead, Davis tried to create Rome through her constant, detailed geographical accounts of journeys. Falco cannot travel anywhere without naming streets, routes and places. It didn't feel particularly convincing since this was a first person narrator speaking and I didn't find it interesting. I can imagine that readers might do if they are genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about ancient Roman geography, but it left me cold. There are several maps, family trees and a list of characters at the beginning of the book which are designed to help you along the way, but I really don't want to read a book that requires this kind of material. (Surely a two page list of characters just tells you that your story has too many characters?) I felt that the author was trying too hard to show off her knowledge and create Rome through plain geography rather than through sensory description. (Give me Dickens any day!)
This also creates an awkward awareness of the reader as audience as Falco carefully explains about festivals and roads. This brought me out of the story and reminded me that it was Historical Fiction. Personally, I would want the detail to be better integrated so that I felt swept along by the story, but maybe that's too big an ask when dealing with an era so far removed from our own. I would rather have read a brief appendix outlining the traditional festival practices and then clocked them as I read through the rest of the book. In fact, I would have found that far more useful than the maps, which I admit that I ignored.
Finally, at the end of each chapter, there is a comment that is designed to lead you on in great suspense to the next chapter. I don't mind that happening occasionally, especially if there is a genuine cliff-hanger, but it felt overly staged since it happened at the end of every chapter and it did grate on my nerves somewhat.
== Conclusions ==
It is a mildly entertaining read if you enjoy gentle family sagas featuring the much-put-upon man and his practical minded wife (the children barely feature and at one point are actually forgotten and left by their parents at someone's house!) If you like detailed geographical references and real historical characters from Roman history then this will probably be a great read for you. Personally, I found that it didn't hold my attention (even when I actually picked it up to read it I often drifted off and had to consciously focus my attention and re-read passages). If you are looking for historical crime fiction then I'm sure there are better books out there (although, helpfully, I am unable to think of any to recommend!) If you're a fan of Lindsey Davis' Falco series already then I imagine this book is fairly similar in style and content and that you'll still enjoy it. Personally, I won't be reading another in this vein when there are so many more interesting books available.