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[personal profile] mtvessel
Jan 2015
The Ides of April - Lindsey Davis - Hodder & Stoughton, 2013
* * * * *
Like most Falco fans, I was disappointed to hear that Davis had given up on her titular hero and was concerned that her new sequence featuring Flavia Albia, his adopted daughter, would turn out to be a pale imitation of the original. Which only goes to show that one should never listen to fans. The Ides of April is Davis' best book in years, with a colourful setting, a tight and (mostly) logical plot and a new and interesting perspective on Roman life. And the change in lead character is almost entirely responsible.

The action is set about ten years on from the events of Nemesis. The paranoid Domitian is in charge and death squads roam the streets, eliminating anyone thought to be a threat to the state. Flavia, now a 28 year old widow, is a small-time informer living in her father's old apartment in the Aventine (or rather, not. It's complicated.) When Salvidia, the owner of a construction company for whom she was working, dies suddenly, Flavia becomes suspicious. She is not the only one; the local plebeian aedile (magistrate), Manlius Faustus, has put up a notice asking for witnesses to an accident in which the construction company was involved, and Salvidia's cheese-maker grandson Metellus Nepos hires her to look into it. She soon discovers that there have been quite a few unexplained deaths in the Aventine; an oyster shucker's son, a fitness fanatic husband, the maid of a rich woman who is an initiate of the cult of Ceres and an elderly neighbour of Salvidia's with a simple-minded son. It seems that a serial killer is on the loose. But who? And what do the victims have in common?

Davis has always been good at evoking settings, and although the Aventine quarter of Rome is familiar from her previous works, the female perspective makes it fresh. We get to see more of everyday street life than we saw with Falco and the inconveniences and restrictions of being a second class citizen, particularly a free thinker in a repressive regime, provide some good talking points.

The most impressive feature is just how believable a character Flavia is as a detective. The restrictions imposed on Roman women would, you might think, lead to implausible situations in terms of getting access to crime scenes and evidence, but Albia's deft use of her web of connections means that it never feels like that. I also liked the way that Flavia is much more openly fallible than Falco. At one stage she forgets to do something while interviewing a witness that almost costs her the case. Her lack of fighting prowess also helps. Where Falco could barge in to a scene or duff up a witness to make them talk, Flavia has to use subtler and more interesting methods. Her relative physical weakness means that there is a sense of danger as she gets further into the plot that is missing from Falco's later adventures.

As always with Davis, there is no great depth to the whodunnit, but the cast of supporting characters is as strong as ever. She sensibly keeps Flavia's family off-stage, telling just enough about them to satisfy the long-term reader while not distracting from the new cast who mostly relate to Flavia's professional life. This allows the plot to be focused on the case rather than the entertaining but distracting family soap opera situations that tended to weaken the later books in the Falco series. There are of course sub-plots - a romance with Andronicus, a charming archivist at the Temple of Ceres, and rivalries with Laia Gratiana, an important cult member, and the taciturn Tiberius, a runner for Manlius Faustus - but these arise naturally out of Albia's investigations.

This book is an object lesson in how to re-boot a series. It retains all the wit, warmth and interesting historical detail of the Falco novels while correcting the tendency to caricature and lack of plot focus that sometimes marred them. With three books already in this series, Davis has clearly found her mojo again. Long may she - and Flavia Albia - continue.
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