Book Review: The Ides of April
by Lindsey Davis
Minotaur Books, 2013
Lindsey Davis has won millions of fans through her series of Roman historical novels (beginning with 1989’s The Silver Pigs) starring fast-talking tough-guy investigator Marcus Didius Falco and his noble-born but scrappy wife Helena Justina. Falco is a down-on-his-luck informer hanging around the edges of the emperor Vespasian’s imperial world, picking up cases here and there, when he runs into Helena Justina, helps her out of a pressing problem, woos her, and eventually marries her. The two then have sleuthing adventures that end up taking them over virtually the entire breadth of the Roman Empire and beyond, and Davis’ twisty plots and remarkable character-depiction never flags. For its twenty-year run, the series was as addictive as anything in the genre.
Much like her Roman-mystery-writing peer Steven Saylor, Davis allowed time to pass in her fictional world; Falco and Helena Justina grew older with each book, at one point adopting a vermin-infested young girl from the slums of Londinium and bringing her back to Rome, where the cleaned-up and well-educated little moppet sometimes helped Falco in his endless series of private investigations.
This little girl was Flavia Albia, and she’s the grown-up star of Davis’ newest book, The Ides of April, set during the reign of Vespasian’s evil son Domitian. Flavia is a spunky young widow (her late husband, a good and simple man she affectionately remembers as “Farm Boy,” is dead before the book begins) who wants nothing more than to follow in her father’s crime-solving footsteps. “I was trained to take my chance, to open doors, to look around,” she tells us, and when a little boy is killed by a recklessly speeding cart in a roadway accident on Rome’s Aventine Hill, she’s hired by the owner of the slaves driving the cart to help protect against the dead boy’s irate mother. When that slave-owner client is then murdered, Flavia Albia finds herself right in the middle of one of Lindsey Davis’ signature games of well-placed red herrings and likely suspects.
She sets about investigating. She’s had some experience:
He knew who I was. That is to say, in vigiles’ terms, he knew who my father and uncle were (best pals, who had cooperated on many a case in their day – a day that was past now, though not according to them). I would hardly have counted here, but for a lucky breakthrough on an old inquiry: my own reputation rested on that time I exposed a doctor who drugged his women patients and then interfered with them. A couple of them had go together afterwards and asked me for help.
The mention of Falco and his fellow investigators will remind Davis’ readers of the many Falco adventures they’ve enjoyed over the years, adventures that have featured brutal street-fights, a harrowing stint working in a mine, last-minute escapes, and plenty of good old-fashioned physical intimidation.
If, during one of those hairsbreadth adventures, menaced by a gang of thugs with drawn daggers, Falco had suddenly stepped forward and said, “I just remembered – their daggers can’t hurt me! My skin is diamond-hard!” – well, probably one or two of those million fans would have stuck around, but it’s doubtful. If, during a confrontation with a recalcitrant witness, Falco had suddenly said, “You have a duty to tell me the truth, because I am Vespasian!” – it’s likely the success of the Falco novels would have died a quick death, and rightly so. Readers might overlook the occasional anachronistic slip-up in even their favorite historical novelists, but they require broad-stroke factual accuracy. If they want somebody simply making stuff up and then calling it history, they can always read Bill O’Reilly. From somebody like Lindsey Davis, they’ve come to expect a certain level of verisimilitude.
In The Ides of April, Davis’ verisimilitude holds strong when she’s describing the shops, bars, temples, and politics of Rome, but it evaporates whenever Flavia Albia is in the spotlight, which is almost always. It doesn’t waver or weaken – it completely evaporates:
I snatched back the tablet. ‘Listen!’ I was seriously angry. ‘Don’t tell me there is no silent killer. Don’t tell me nobody has died in peculiar circumstances. There is, they have, and I will carry on looking into this until I prove what has been going on. I have just interviewed members of the stricken family in need of assistance – assistance the authorities, including your filthy master the aedile, have refused to the victims because they are too busy fabricating a farcical cover-up using stale pastries … Stuff you,’ I said. ‘I will not talk to you. Get out of this caupona while you still have legs to walk on.’
For the actual likelihood that Flavia Albia could be a Hammett-esque private gumshoe in ancient Rome, we need only turn to one of the wryest moments in Virginia Woolf:
Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance: very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
In The Ides of April, Flavia uses her wits, her bluffing bravery, and the sharp skills she picked up from her adoptive father to uncover a plot and reveal a murderer. Next time, perhaps she’ll use her heat vision. Probably faster that way.