Book Review: Master and God
Keeping Up with the Romans
St. Martin’s Press, 2012
For a quarter of a century, British writer Lindsey Davis has been delighting her fans with annual mystery-thriller novels starring her tough-talking, tender-hearted hero Marcus Didius Falco and his noble-born wife Helena Justina. Falco is in the intermittent and usually ungrateful employ of the emperor Vespasian, nominally as an informer but really as a private investigator, and in adventures set all over the Roman empire of AD 70, he and Helena foil elaborate plots, start a family, and exchange quips like a 1st Century Nick and Nora Charles. The series was an almost immediate hit, the berth is secure, the fans as, so to speak, legion. Is it any wonder rancor festered?
Perhaps not rancor, but certainly the atmosphere was perfect for encouraging ambition. Davis wrote a straight-up Roman historical novel, The Course of Honor, set in Vespasian’s early years and featuring the absolutely remarkable woman who taught him so much of what he learned about politics. It was a very credible performance, but of course it never came close to supplanting Falco & Co. in the hearts of Davis’ readers.
The Course of Honor was written a many, many Falco novels ago. This year Davis comes out with another straight-up Roman historical novel, Master & God, set during the troubled reign of Vespasian’s second son (and suspected murderer of his first), the emperor Domitian. This story also features a pair of star-crossed lovers – Praetorian Guard Gaius Vinius Clodianus and imperial hairdresser Flavia Lucilla – but they have no globe-trotting adventures; in the cut-throat world of a criminally unstable emperor, they have enough work to do simply staying alive.
Davis has always been blazingly good at dialogue and comic timing (there are set-piece scenes in some of the Falco novels that could have stumbled straight out of Wodehouse), but neither of those strengths can help her in the sober, protracted, and extremely serious story she’s set herself to tell here – two stories, really: the gradual approach of Vinius and Lucilla to something like love, and the gradual disintegration of Domitian’s rule from a glorious start to an end haunted by assassination-plots. Her skill at dialogue sticks with her throughout, although the sheer length of time Vinius and Lucilla simply don’t know each other all that well (a length of time that constitutes an oddly amateurish mistake) renders much of it strained:
“Sorry. Mistrust festers, until even the innocent are seen as guilty. The worst is, it takes almost nothing to make you feel guilty.”
“It must be hard to do your job,” sneered Lucilla.
“Better I do it, than somebody less scrupulous,” said Gaius briefly, as he left her alone on the wet terrace.
Perhaps he really believed that.
And opportunities for comic timing are virtually nonexistent, despite the fact that Plautus would have made antic hay out of Lucilla’s job as a hairdresser. Davis more often than not doesn’t feel free enough to indulge herself, so we get passage after passage like this one, where Lucilla contemplates the acquisition of a new male favorite client at court:
It would appear she had plenty of alternatives: the Emperor’s advisors and personal attendants; artists, musicians, poets and learned men; architects, engineers; finance experts, secretaries, soldiers; athletes and professional gladiators. Some were married, thought many left their wives elsewhere. Of those, some noble sorts were restrained and faithful; not many. Occasionally one of the better men would develop a soft spot for Lucilla and engage in cheery, acceptably flirtatious banter.
Most were to be avoided. They were, openly, just looking for a good time. In her early naive search for friendship, Lucilla struggled. As a hairdresser she was viewed as a cheaper, cleaner, patriotically home-grown version of the sordid Syrian flute girls or notorious Spanish dancers just an easy lay for whom men would not even pay. Nobody admired a hairdresser for chastity.
Vinius fares no better. He’s in Dacia during the horrific, protracted Battle of Tapae, which we read all about but don’t for an instant believe:
The butchery horrified Vinius. He found himself trampling over dead and wounded, discarded shields and weapons; sliding on blood and guts and brains; stabbing and slashing, sometimes to good purpose yet sometimes aimlessly, while blinded by a mist of sweat and blood. The relentless noise appalled him. Not only the endlessly clashing weapons, but the terrible squealing of horses, the hideous screaming of men. The conflict just went on and on. He had never known such weariness, nor such spirit-sapping misery.
That such a robotic moment could only be written by somebody who’d never experienced combat is no slight to Davis – we hardly expect our historical novelists to strap on helmet and gladius and go out in search of carnage. But in this passage is also seems as though Davis has never read about combat, and that simply isn’t true. Whether the excessive caution choking that passage and hundreds like it is born of excessive solemnity or fish-out-of-water awkwardness, it has the same effect that excessive caution does in real combat: it kills.
By far the largest percentage of Master & God (the repulsive appellation Domitian was said to have made mandatory for those addressing him) is turned over to virtually undisguised exposition, and this in itself isn’t a mortal sin: all the greatest Roman historical novels do it, often more brazenly than Davis would ever dream. Nevertheless, she includes every single last fact she’s unearthed about Domitian’s Rome, and these passages (what modern online reviewers accurately but rather crudely refer to as “info-dumps”) are saved only by the fact that Davis is an effortlessly genial explainer (her author talks are not to be missed) who can make virtually anything interesting – and Domitian’s time provides plenty of interesting material:
As censor, chief magistrate and as Pontifex Maximus or chief priest, the Emperor himself judged many criminal proceedings. If Rome was a collective household, Domitian was its head. He presided over serious trials. Theoretically, he would never initiate charges himself, but when names were handed in by informers, the facts (or fantasies) had to be checked to gauge the likelihood of securing a conviction; where Domitian was the judge, his Praetorians liaised closely with the Urban Cohorts. Vinius Clodianus helped the Urbans evaluate cases and gave them ideas for following up evidence.
This is one of the few points in Master & God where Davis comes tantalizingly close to the mirror-image of her Falco novels, in which when we meet our hero he’s just such a professional informer, a loathsome breed given to venomous back-stabbing – a breed whose sordid qualities we’re not supposed to associate with Falco himself. But that road isn’t taken – instead, plots against Domitian foment and involve our central pair, but frustratingly distantly. Davis is too much the professional to mishandle the basics of the love story, but that’s cold comfort when so much of the rest of the book mishandled. Completists for this author will buy it and read it and find things to please them – but the guiding charm of the Falco books is absent here, when a dash of it now and then would have made a world of difference.