The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis: A review

I am a big fan of Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco series. I've read all twenty books in that series and was waiting for the next entry, but, as it happens, Marcus has retired from the investigations game since the death of his father. As chief heir to the family fortune, he's taken over the family auction business and is prospering in that role.

But the miscreants of Rome should not rest easy. The Didius Falcos' adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is now on the case, having been trained by the master himself.

Those readers who have followed the series will remember Flavia Albia as the British-born orphan waif rescued from a life on the streets by Marcus and Helena. She was adopted and raised as their daughter. Now she is all grown up at 28 and is herself a widow, her much-loved young husband, Lentullus, having died a few years before. She is determined to make her own way in the world and to maintain her independence. Following in her adoptive father's footsteps is her way of achieving that goal.

This novel, first in a new series for Davis, is actually based on real historical events. A series of mysterious deaths of people thought to be perfectly healthy is revealed to be the result of an unknown poison. The poison is delivered by a needle that has been loaded with the deadly substance. It is delivered in public places, on the streets of Rome, and usually the victims do not even realize they have been attacked until it is too late and they are breathing their last.

The scene of the action is the Aventine Hill, which is Flavia's haunt. She knows its monumental temples, grubby snack bars, and muddy back lanes like the back of her hand. Moreover, she has taken over her father's ratty old office there as her own headquarters.

She becomes involved in the case when a nephew is suspicious about the death of his perfectly healthy elderly aunt. Flavia agrees to investigate and soon learns of other unexpected deaths in the same area. She enlists the aid of friends in the vigiles, the local fire brigade/police, in her investigation and finds that she has come to the attention of the plebeian aedile, Manlius Faustus. His "runner," Tiberius, is often on the streets looking for perpetrators of crime and he offers advice and support to Flavia, although at first she is very hostile to him and unwilling to take it.

She is much more taken by another member of Faustus' household, a charming freedman named Andronicus, and feels herself becoming romantically involved with him. But will she allow her head to be turned to the extent that she loses sight of her investigation into the murders?

Flavia Albia is a tough and witty investigator/narrator in the tradition of Marcus Didius Falco. She gives us a new slant on life in ancient Rome, as we see the city and its people and political systems from the viewpoint of a woman. 

She is living and working in the time of the emperor Domitian, a much less benevolent ruler than the Vespasian and Titus that Marcus Didius Falco had to deal with and occasionally worked for. It is a time of paranoia in Rome, when people do well to keep their heads down for fear they might be chopped off. 

Flavia Albia has a soft spot for animals and the appalling cruelty to foxes of the cult of Ceres is one of the features of this story - a feature which I, frankly, found very hard to read, having myself a soft spot for animals. But it is a part of the inhumanity to both animals and humans that was endemic to the era, and Lindsey Davis, as usual, has done her research well. She brings the streets of ancient Rome to life in an unflinching way. 

It will be interesting to see where she goes with this new female detective of hers. I'll be waiting for the next installment.


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