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The Marcus Didius Falco series of detective novels by Lindsey Davis, starring the eponymous central character as a private eye in Vespasian's Rome (the 70s AD), have now firmly established themselves as among the finest examples of their type, and have been extremely successful: the twentieth book in the series will be published in June of next year. Davis herself, whose website at lindseydavis.com reveals both fun and forthrightness in her character, seems yet to run out of ideas. Two for the Lions is book ten in the sequence, having been published in 1998.
The plot is dramatic: Falco, forced into an unwilling partnership with his (at times deadly) rival, the Emperor's Chief Spy Anacrites, is hoping to make a fortune from working as on Vespasian's "Great Census" - a fortune that could bring him the social status he needs to marry his lover, senator's daughter Helena Justina. However, in the midst of this, a prize circus lion is murdered. Falco's investigations drag him into the dangerous world of gladiator training and, eventually, across the Mediterranean to Africa.
Although, like many long-running series, the Falco books were a little uneven right at the start, by the time you get to Two for the Lions, everything is handled extremely well. Falco himself is a very well drawn character, his fraught family life giving him a believable hinterland beyond his work as an informer. I do feel that some of the later books in the series suffer very slightly from the benefits that some of his successes have brought him, and that he's actually a rather more likeable character when he's having to struggle for every crust.
Anacrites is a wonderful villain, a man who could be a perfect Grand Vizier in a pantomime. This makes him much more interesting than the standard brutish heavies that operate at less rarefied levels of power, and the tension that is created by throwing him and Falco together on the same side is apparent right up to the extremely dramatic finale. Helena Justina is, usual, inseparable from Falco, able to offer insight and wisdom which often wrong-foots set-in-their-ways male characters unable quite to believe, or to cope with, a woman willing and able to form her own opinions.
Of the other characters, some readers may be disappointed that Falco's mildly disreputable friend Petronius Longus does not feature, but actually I didn't really miss him what with everything else going on. Some of Falco's family, however, play significant roles: his formidable mother has, much to Falco's disgust, taken to caring for Anacrites (who had been wounded in a previous book), his Del Boy-esque father is still wheeling and dealing, and his drunken brother-in-law Famia is looking for new horses for the chariot team he, in theory, assists. Helena's family, in particular her brother Camillus Justinus, also play substantial parts.
Unlike many Falco books, which are either set mostly in Italy or mostly abroad, Two for the Lions takes the ambitious route of setting the first two-thirds of the story in Rome and the rest in North Africa. This allows for scenes set both in what, by this stage of the series, are the relatively familiar surrounds of the world's greatest city and in the far more exotic climes of that narrow strip of fertile and habitable land between the sea and the desert. This variety prevents things from becoming repetitive, and keeps us on our toes as the story builds to a climax.
The Roman world was a violent place, and that is reflected here. While there is no glorying in death and destruction (from Falco, anyway: there is from some other characters!) it is as well for the reader to be aware that there are some quite bloody scenes here: it could hardly be otherwise where the lions and gladiators of the circus are involved. One of the strengths of Davis's writing is that she does not shy away from this and pretend that the Roman circus was other than the often bloodthirsty spectacle it was, nor does she moralise about the fact that Romans often found watching criminals being torn limb from limb simply a nice day out.
The best part of any Falco book, however, is the writing of (ostensibly) the man himself; the books are written in the first person, which gives them energy and pace. He acts as narrator - very occasionally in the series he refers explicitly to writing his memoirs - and his sardonic humour and world-weary tone makes him sound exactly like so many private eyes of almost two millennia later. He doesn't hide his own shortcomings, and though he can occasionally sound a little too pleased with himself that just makes him seem like more of a real, rounded, flawed human being. Readers might not always agree with his actions, but they'll rarely be short on sympathy.
Two for the Lions would not be an impossible book with which to start on the Falco series, despite its nine predecessors. There is not a great deal of baggage from previous novels, and the story itself is pretty much self-contained. Despite the high body count in this episode, it's one of the easiest-reading in the series, and displays Davis's knack for finding humour within a serious situation. I'm a great fan of the whole sequence, but would certainly rank Two for the Lions as one of the best and so highly recommend it.