Marcus Didius Falco: Book 3
Yes, all right, I’m reading out of order again. When I bought this book the other day, I knew that I had Book 2 lying around somewhere, but just couldn’t put my finger on it. Only now, as I write, have I noticed it staring at me accusingly from the bookshelf (if you’ve been to my flat, this state of mild book chaos will be understandable). I just couldn’t resist a touch of Roman comedy crime drama, so went ahead with Venus in Copper in the hope that I’d be able to catch up; and I have, though I’ve evidently missed a couple of crucial plot points for the wider series. In this instalment, our Roman gumshoe is hired for what seems to be an everyday kind of case: checking the credentials of a potential bride. But there are two catches. He’s been hired not by the groom, but by the groom’s sisters-in-law (the whole family being almost embarrassingly arriviste); and the problem is not the character of the bride so much as the fact that her last three husbands have died swiftly, in mysterious circumstances. What is Severina Zotica up to?
One result of skipping Book 2 is that I was surprised to find Falco in prison when Venus in Copper opens. He’s made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of Anacrites, Chief Spy to the Emperor and as vindictive and petty a fellow as anyone could hope to meet. Fortunately, Anacrites hasn’t counted on the determination of Falco’s elderly mother, who bails out her errant son – an act that both she and Falco know will require years of filial gratitude and obligation to repay. (One of the delights of Falco is that he thinks he’s a hard-nosed man of the world, but at heart he’s an overgrown Italian man-child who’s ruthlessly dominated by his mamma.) Falco scuttles home to Fountain Court, where he presently finds himself watched by Anacrites’ spies: a poor turn of events for an informer. And so Falco plans to move house: a decision made even more necessary by his increasing infatuation with Helena Justina. A pleb has little enough hope of winning a senator’s daughter as his wife in any case – his chances must be severely depleted when he lives above a ramshackle laundry in one of the very worst parts of Rome. So Falco decides to try to move up in the world (although we all know that Helena Justina actually loves him just the way he is – not that she would ever admit it to him).
What with moving house, reporting to the Emperor and receiving unexpected gifts of turbot, Falco is kept busy – even more so with the arrival of his new case. And so perhaps he doesn’t give Helena quite the attention and comfort that she needs, given that – again in the second book – she has recently miscarried their first child after an accident. That’s the strange power of Davis’s books: they’re written with great humour and irreverence, but there’s something profoundly true about the characters at the heart of them. Faced with tragedy, neither Falco nor Helena can find a way through their griefs to actually communicate with one another and so this book – apart from the central case – traces the way in which, very gradually, they learn to open up to one another again and to find a way to move on, closer and stronger, from this first great tragedy of their lives together.
And Helena is also as smart as you like, which proves enormously helpful to Falco (even though he winds her up by saying she’s only there to take messages). As Falco delves into the chequered past of Severina Zotica, he will need all the help he can get, whether that’s from a seductive snake-dancer, a gifted pastry-chef, or a Gallic cook (‘I am prepared to concede that one day the three cold Gallic provinces will come up with a contribution to the civilised arts – but nobody is going to convince me that it will be mastery of cuisine‘). But of course Falco himself is the stout heart of the enterprise, bravely going forth to interview witnesses, the sensual red-headed Severina herself, or his two clients, who make up for their utter vulgarity with the cheerful abundance of their charms. Falco likes to think of himself as a dashing ladies’ man, whereas in fact we all know that he doesn’t have eyes for anyone but Helena, and that she has him wrapped around her little finger. But can he winkle out the truth before Severina Zotica marries Hortensius Nova – potentially making him her fourth victim? Assuming, that is, that she is a murderer at all?
With full supporting chorus of slaves, ruffians, city guards and Praetorians, not to mention a cameo from Titus Vespasianus, this is another rock-solid and note-perfect foray into ancient Rome. Davis takes us into the parts of Rome that most glittering historical fiction doesn’t reach: away from the palaces and corridors of power to the dirty street corners and crowded squares of the pleb districts (I always imagine Falco roaming through a version of the set from Rome, which I think also captures this shabby, down-at-heel quality so well). She’s a master of plot, character and dialogue – always rare to find an author who excels at all three – and manages to keep that dialogue snappy and colloquial without sounding offensively modern. The conversations between Falco and Helena, especially, could have come from an old-school screwball comedy.
In short, this series is shaping up to be a real gem of historical fiction, as well as enormous fun. In this particular case, the solution to the crime is a little convoluted but, by the time you get there, you don’t really care that much: the journey, not the end, is the true joy with Falco, and I look forward to spending much more time in his company.
Now I’ve just got to find Book 2 again…
Last in the series – Shadows in Bronze
Next in the series – The Iron Hand of Mars