In the long, hot Roman Summer of AD74, Marcus Didius Falco, private informer and spare-time poet, gives a reading for his family and friends. Things get out of hand as usual. The event is taken over by Aurelius Chrysippus, a wealthy Greek banker and patron to a group of struggling writers, who offers to publish Falco's work - a golden opportunity that rapidly palls. A visit to the Chrysippusscriptorium implicates him in a gruesome literary murder so when Petronius Longus, the over-worked vigiles enquiry chief, commissions him to investigate, Falco is forced to accept.
Lindsey Davis' twelfth novel wittily explores Roman publishing and banking, taking us from the jealousies of authorship and the mire of patronage, to the darker financial world, where default can have fatal consequences...
In Davis's 12th Marcus Didius Falco story (after 2000's One Virgin Too Many), the Roman informer, a sort of Columbo in a dirty toga, investigates a sensational murder connected to the worlds of poetry, publishing and banking. It's a good mystery and, as such, the reader doesn't suspect the perpetrator until all is gradually revealed, and then everything makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, unlike historical mystery author Steven Saylor, Davis deliberately makes his ancient Rome seem contemporary. Characters talk about man management and brandish the stylus and note tablet like a Palm Pilot. On the other hand, the technology is true to period. Without benefit of forensic evidence and crime labs, Falco has to talk to people and rely on a few clues, such as a missing sea-nettle flan from the victim's lunch tray. Did the murderer really like nettle flans so much that he stopped to snack? Moreover, like sleuths from the dawn of civilization to the present day, Falco has to get on with solving the crime amid the distractions of work and various crises here, involving his father, his mother, his sister, his lover and even his dog, Nux (Latin for "worthless"). The Romans were great believers in what we've come to call family values; the antics of the ruling families aside, those standards were important to the average Roman, including Falco. In the end, we leave Marcus Didius Falco with a wine flagon and a good scroll to read. Given the society in which he lives, he probably won't be idle for long, much to his fans' delight.