A suspicious death and subsequent murder send Flavia Albia down a twisted path to expose corruption and betrayal in Lindsey Davis’s next historical mystery, Pandora's Boy.
First century Rome is not the quiet, orderly city that it pretends to be and in this environment, a very clever private informer can thrive. Flavia Albia, daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, is a chip off the old block. She's taken over his father's old profession, and, like him, she occasionally lets her love of a good puzzle get in the way of her common sense. Such is the case when one such puzzle is brought to her by the very hostile ex-wife of Albia's new husband.
It seems that over on the Quirinal Hill, a naive young girl, one Clodia Volumnia, has died, and there's a suggestion that she was poisoned by a love potion. The local witch, Pandora, would have been the one to supply such a potion. Looking into the matter, Albia soon learns that Pandora carries on a trade in herbal beauty products while keeping hidden her much more dangerous connections.
Albia soon discovers the young girl was a handful and her so-called friends were not as friendly as they should have been. The supposedly sweet air of the Quirinal hides the smells of loose morality, casual betrayal, and even gangland conflict. When a friend of her own is murdered, things become serious and Albia is determined to expose as much of this local sickness as she can—beginning with the truth about the death of little Clodia.
In Davis's solid sixth novel set in ancient Rome and featuring informer Flavia Alba (after 2017's The Third Nero), her latest case comes from an unusual source: Laia Gratiana, the rich, snooty ex-wife of Flavia's new husband, Manlius Faustus. An adolescent girl, Clodia Volumnia, has been found dead in her bed, and her parents are at odds over the cause. Her father, a mediator, believes that Clodia was poisoned by a love potion that his mother-in-law procured from Pandora, an herbalist suspected of witchcraft. But Clodia's mother blames her husband for nixing a romance, leading Clodia to die of a broken heart. Though she loathes Laia, Flavia agrees to investigate, even as she must deal with her husband's baffling disappearance. Her digging, which steps on some powerful toes, reminds her of Rome's dirty underbelly: "Among the Imperial monuments, the big houses of reclusive tycoons, the memories of long-gone demagogues and colonial adventurers lurked every kind of corruption." Davis's close attention to detail, such as a reference to Emperor Domitian's proscription against sidewalk caf s, makes the past vivid.