Marcus Didius Falco: Book 2
Time to head back to Ancient Rome, for some political skulduggery in the company of our overworked and underpaid Roman sleuth, Falco. This book slots in between The Silver Pigs and Venus in Copper, and follows Falco as he embarks on yet another over-complicated mission for his patron Vespasian. Falco is always great fun to read about: like Cadfael, he’s a vivid and lively character, whose world is meticulously historically accurate, but evoked with a light touch. Unlike Cadfael, he’s prickly, full of himself, and still young enough to be trying to find his feet in the world. In Shadows in Bronze, Vespasian orders him to mop up the loose ends left by the aristocratic conspiracy we saw in The Silver Pigs but, as Falco heads down to the opulent Bay of Naples to round up a couple of recalcitrant senators, he starts to get the uneasy feeling that he hasn’t seen the last of the plotters. Although his trip to Naples is dressed up to look like a family holiday, he swiftly realises that danger is never far away. To make matters worse, his cut-above-the-rest love interest, Helena Justina, is also enjoying a break on the Bay of Naples, and Falco’s personal and professional lives look set to collide once again.
What is Barnabas up to? That’s what’s troubling Falco. You’d have thought the conspiracy against Vespasian was well extinguished. One of the central figures has been disposed of – indeed, as the book opens, poor Falco is getting rid of the man’s overripe corpse – and another has been strangled in prison by his associates. (Just to make things awkward, the overripe corpse was Helena Justina’s uncle; the strangled man was her ex-husband Gnaeus Atius Pertinax.) Now Falco finds himself with an unwelcome tail: a man in a particularly hideous green hooded cloak, who appears to be Pertinax’s freedman Barnabas. And Barnabas seems, rather alarmingly, to be intent on getting rid of his master’s former co-conspirators. For revenge? To stop them speaking out? Falco isn’t sure. But when a third conspirator, Curtius Longinus, is burned to death in a locked temple before he can be interviewed by Vespasian, Falco realises that he’s up against a determined and ruthless enemy. Vespasian is sending Falco south, to summon back to Rome two more members of the conspiracy – Curtius Gordianus, now sunning himself as priest in a wretched little town on the bunion of Italy’s toe, and the playboy Aufidius Crispus. But what if Barnabas gets there first?
As ever, Falco manages his task with wit, subtlety and aplomb. Which is to say that he descends on the Bay of Naples with his best friend Petronius Longus (Captain of the Aventine Watch), Petronius’ fractious wife Arria Silvia, and their three small daughters, not to mention Falco’s own sullen teenage nephew Larius. It would attract less attention to arrive with a circus. And, while Falco’s trying to track down the elusive Crispus, he decides to kill time and make a small profit – since Vespasian never actually bothers to pay him properly – by trading in a bit of spare lead that’s been hanging around the state warehouses in Rome, lost, forgotten and unwanted (for said lead ingots, see The Silver Pigs). Along the way, Falco also manages to acquire an affectionate sacred goat, and enjoys a brief career as lyre teacher to a senator’s sister in Herculaneum. It’s fast-paced, frequently silly, and tightly plotted in a screwball kind of way.
Then there’s Helena. She turns out to have a unexpectedly significant role to play in Falco’s investigations, but her presence is important in another way too. Part of this series’s comedy – and poignancy – is to watch Falco blundering through the personal tribulations that exist alongside his investigations. In The Silver Pigs, we watched him gradually warming up to the arrogant senator’s daughter whom he had to escort back from Britain; here, in Shadows in Bronze, they’re both struggling to understand what the other wants, their path to happiness stymied by pride and secrets on both sides. Poignancy definitely overtakes comedy in this particular instalment, although in the few scenes they have together, when not in the grip of tragic circumstances, there’s a lovely snap and crackle of conversation between them. Their maturing relationship offers one of the enduring plotlines that runs throughout the whole series, and although I wish Helena could have had slightly more stage time in this novel, things happen which are vital for setting the tone of their partnership later on.
Having read Venus in Copper (Book 3) first, I found that Shadows in Bronze was primarily a way to fill in gaps: this is one series that really does need to be read in sequence. For example, it’s in Shadows in Bronze that Falco’s and Helena’s relationship jumps to a new, more raw, painful and personal level, complete with all the misunderstandings and pride that entails (largely on Falco’s part). It’s here that Falco finds the recipe for turbot in caraway, which prompts his dinner party in Venus in Copper, and it’s here that he profoundly narks his former colleague, the Imperial spy Anacrites, which results in Falco’s rather unfortunate position at the beginning of the next book. I now feel that I’ve crossed the ‘t’s and dotted the ‘i’s and I’m ready to head on in order to The Iron Hand of Mars. At least, I know it’s somewhere on my bookshelves. I just have to find it first…
Recommended for humour, spark and a complex mystery, with a deeply satisfying resolution. Not my favourite so far, I admit, but that’s probably because I foolishly read it out of order. Looking forward to getting back on track with the next one.