Enemies at Home: A Flavia Albia Novel – A cool detective procedural set in ancient Rome – #mystery #bookreview

 

Lindsey Davis Enemies at Home

 

Enemies at Home

A Flavia Albia Novel

Lindsey Davis

 ( Minotaur Books, hardback, Kindle )

Can a 29-year-old widow make it as a private detective in first century A.D. Rome?

Flavia Albia has some friends in semi-high places. And she has one very important family connection: She is the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, one of Rome’s best-known “private informers,” the ancient equivalent of a modern private eye.

Flavia has taken over her father’s office, and she keeps needing new cases.  But in the private informer business, it’s “no win, no pay.” So,  she is always on the lookout for a case she can both win and profit from, in a legal system where women have no rights in matters of law and where she must compete with male private informers who do have rights.

Unfortunately, the case that suddenly lands in Flavia’s lap in Enemies at Home does not seem to hold much promise:

“Even before I started, I knew I should say no,” Flavia states at the book’s beginning.

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favors for friends. Don’t work with relatives, Think carefully about legal work. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive. The Aviola inquiry broke every one of those rules, not the least because the clients had no money, yet I took it on. Will I never learn?”

 Not yet. She meets up with a magistrate, an aedile, named Tiberius Manlius Faustus, with whom she has worked before and finds attractive. (Can “Manlius” be viewed as a Latinized pun on “manly”? Yep.) Faustus has just been assigned to deal with a very complicated case within his jurisdiction, and he needs Flavia’s help to try to sort things out.

A man and his wife have been brutally murdered and robbed, apparently by intruders, and the couples’ slaves have fled to the Temple of Ceres, desperately hoping to get asylum so they can save their lives.

“The slaves got wind of their plight,” Flavia informs us. “They knew the notorious Roman law when a head of household was murdered at home. By instinct the authorities went after the wife, but that was no use if she was dead too. So unless the dead man had another obvious enemy, his slaves fell under suspicion. Whether guilty or not, they were put to death. All of them.”

Flavia’s task, of course, is to attempt to help exonerate the slaves. But Roman law literally is a vicious beast, sometimes. Criminals and those merely suspected of a crime can be thrown to the lions or sewn into large bags along with dangerous animals and dropped into the sea. And that’s just two of the many ways capital punishment can be meted out in the Roman Empire.

Flavia is the slaves’ only hope. And she is armed with nothing but curiosity, questions and bluster, plus some occasional help from the aedile, Manlius Faustus, as she goes where no woman typically has gone before, at least in recent years, in Roman society.

Enemies at Home features a very big cast of characters (spanning two pages at the front of the book). And it is somewhat easy to grow confused by (and a bit wearied of) virtually every male name ending in “-us” and almost every female name ending in “-a.”

For the most part, however, this second Flavia Albia novel is fun and informative reading. Lindsey Davis is a master at moving her characters about in ancient Roman settings. She keeps them both human and limited by the pace, technology, laws and social mores of the Roman Empire (during the reign of the allegedly paranoid emperor, Domitian). Her dialogue often is wickedly sharp and funny, and, except for an occasional Latin word here and there, no effort is made to have the characters speak in any tongue other than modern lingo.

If you have been hoping Falco will reappear and have a cameo role in this new book, be prepared to wait for the next novel in the series and see if he shows up there. Flavia Albia is now her own woman. She emerges strongly from her father’s shadow in Enemies at Home and demonstrates why she also deserves to be known as one of the very best public informers in first-century Rome.

Si Dunn

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The Troubles Trilogy: Adrian McKinty’s Northern Ireland crime novels are powerful, engrossing reading – #bookreview

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone

Book Three: The Troubles Trilogy

Adrian McKinty

(Seventh Street Books, paperback)

I wish I had discovered The Troubles Trilogy and Detective Sean Duffy much sooner than Book Three. I really don’t like reading trilogies in reverse.

But Adrian McKinty is an amazingly good crime novelist. And now that I have also read his two other books in ThTroubles Trilogy,  I can honestly say that it is pleasingly easy to read these works in any order you wish.

In the Morning I'll Be Gone cover

Yes, Book One: The Cold Cold Ground and Book Two: I Hear the Sirens in the Streets are tied together by some of the same characters and settings found in Book Three: In the Morning I’ll Be Gone. Each novel, however, stands solidly on its own.

Detective Sean Duffy is an Irish Catholic cop working for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s decidedly unpopular police force. The three novels unfold during the early 1980s, amid some of the most violent times in a small-scale but deadly civil war that has been raging for decades. On one side are the mostly Protestant Unionists and Loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the  United Kingdom. On the other side are the mostly Catholic Nationalists and Republicans who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland again.

Duffy, caught in the middle and working for a mostly Protestant police force, must try to solve grisly murder cases while not getting blown up by Irish Republican Army car bombs–he never goes anywhere without first looking beneath his vehicle–or killed by bullets fired by snipers on both sides.

There are neighborhoods where it’s deadly to be a Protestant or a Catholic and neighborhoods where it’s equally deadly to be one of Her Majesty’s cops, or “peelers,” in the local argot.  (Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British prime minister, is credited with creating the concept of a metropolitan police force. As a result, police officers became known as “bobbies” in England and “peelers” in Northern Ireland.)

Sometimes, in pursuit of leads and suspects, Duffy finds himself on streets that are British territory on one side of the center line and Irish territory on the other. And, a classic tough-guy detective, Duffy seldom hesitates if he needs to sneak into Ireland, where he has absolutely no jurisdiction except his fists and his guns. Also, he sometimes crosses that dark, ill-defined border between good cop and bad cop, in the name of justice as he defines it.

Adrian McKinty has been compared, deservedly so, to Raymond Chandler and a few other leading crime novelists. He is a native of Northern Ireland, and his taut, well-written, realistic prose makes excellent use of that region’s cultures, languages and longstanding sectarian tensions. He draws you in quickly and doesn’t let you escape –not until after gritty Detective Sean Duffy finally has tracked down and confronted the killer face to face.

Si Dunn

The Ides of April – An entertaining new Lindsey Davis detective series debut – #mystery #bookreview

The Ides of April

A Flavia Albia Mystery

Lindsey Davis

(Minotaur Books, hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio CD)

Many fans of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in first-century Rome will delight in this new spin-off series by London author Lindsey Davis. Readers eagerly seeking another unusual detective to follow may relish this series debut, as well.  

In The Ides of April, Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, makes her series debut as a private informer in Rome during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who later will be ranked somewhere in the safe middle between the best and worst rulers of the Roman Empire.

The year is A.D. 89, and a young widow named Flavia Albia has taken over Falco’s old apartment and is struggling to build up her business as an investigator. Flavia is British-born and served as nursemaid to Falco’s children before Falco and his “unofficial” wife Helena Justina adopted her.

The pay scale for a private informer is “no win, no fee.” Also: “As a female, I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me?” Flavia has two other qualities that work in her favor as a detective in Rome: She doesn’t like to be defeated, and her adoptive parents taught her how to comfortably blend into virtually all levels of society.

Of course, it’s never easy to be a female detective in ancient Rome. As Flavia points out: “Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused.”

One of those “refused” cases, of course, starts out simple and soon turns into a murder investigation that includes the hunter being hunted by the killer.

The cast of characters in The Ides of April extends for two pages, and new readers of a Lindsey Davis novel likely will find themselves frequently flipping back to it for reminders of who exactly Junillus or Robigo or Felix or Serena is.

Indeed, if this is your first exposure to Lindsey Davis’s well-detailed, history-based fiction, you might consider photocopying the extensive cast list and keeping it close at hand so you won’t have to keep flipping back to the front of the book.

One other note. While the setting is ancient Rome, many of the descriptions, attitudes, and dialogue exchanges would not seem out of place in a 21st century English detective novel. This can be at least momentarily jarring for new readers of a Lindsey Davis mystery. However, we must remember that English had not yet been cobbled together in A.D. 89. And, thankfully, the author does not throw a lot of Latin at us.

Fans of Marcus Didius Falco may grumble about Falco being downsized to a much smaller character in this tale. Yet as Lindsey Davis points out on her website:

“After 20 novels, I need a break and have no current plans for a new Falco novel. I am enjoying the ‘spin-off’ series about Flavia Albia….” (The one that will follow The Ides of April will be titled Enemies at Home).

“I am also excited to be writing a ‘QuickRead’ for 2014. These are a special series of short books for adults who came to reading late or who don’t read very much. Mine is called A Cruel Fate and is set in the Civil War.”

So Marcus Didius Falco is not dead. He has just been put out to pasture while Flavia gets an entertaining and engrossing chance to make her mark in the family business.

Si Dunn

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Seven Wonders’ – A fine intro to Gordianus the Finder, famous sleuth of ancient Rome – #bookreview #in #mystery #fiction

The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
Steven Saylor
(Minotaur Books, hardback, list price $25.99; Kindle edition, $12.99)

To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.

I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.

Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.

The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.

The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.

It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.

He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”

A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”

The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.  

There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.

Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.

I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.

The Seven Wonders will be available starting June 5, 2012 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.