Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey DavisDeadly Election (Flavia Albia Mystery, #3) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #3
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook

In the blazing July heat of imperial Rome, Flavia Albia inspects a decomposing corpse. It has been discovered in lots to be auctioned by her family business, so she's determined to identify the dead man and learn how he met his gruesome end.
The investigation will give her a chance to work with the magistrate, Manlius Faustus, the friend she sadly knows to be the last chaste man in Rome. But he's got other concerns than her anonymous corpse. It's election time and with democracy for sale at Domitian's court, tension has come to a head. Faustus is acting as an agent for a 'good husband and father', whose traditional family values are being called into question. Even more disreputable are his rivals, whom Faustus wants Albia to discredit.
As Albia's and Faustus' professional and personal partnership deepens they have to accept that, for others, obsession can turn sour, and become a deadly strain that leads, tragically, to murder.

My Review:

I want to start this with “Once upon a time” but I’m not sure whether that’s once upon a time, in 1989, the author published the first book in a historical mystery series featuring a hard-boiled rapscallion of a private inquiry agent named Marcus Didius Falco. The series ran for 20 books, until Falco passed the investigative torch to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. Deadly Election is the third book in her series, which is now at ten books and continuing.

It could be “once upon a time”, back when audiobooks were still on actual tape, I listened to that first book, The Silver Pigs, and picked up all the subsequent books I could get my hands on in any form.

At the time, the series was a bit like the bear dancing, in that you are not surprised it’s done well, you’re surprised it’s done AT ALL. But in the end, it was done and done very well indeed, in spite of the seeming implausibility of the protagonist.

Once you’ve read the fortunes and misfortunes of the father, it seems natural to continue the adventure with the daughter who brings her own version of wry intelligence mixed with utter cynicism to her own investigations – following in her father’s often self-indulgent footsteps.

Flavia Albia is a different kind of investigator altogether. Not that she doesn’t find herself in trouble as often as her father did. It’s just that many of the times Falco had to be broken out of jail it was his own fault due to some of that self-indulgence. When Flavia Albia gets into trouble it’s usually because she’s working too hard or following too closely in a case. The former at least was something her father was seldom accused of.

And if it seems like I’m meandering a bit or giving a lot of background, that’s actually kind of how both series work. Because there is generally a lot of background, all to the purpose of immersing the reader in the world inhabited by Flavia Albia and her frequently disreputable family – with her “dear old dad” as the head disreputable. Without his redoubtable wife, Helena Justina, he would never have managed to stay any course long enough to have enough to retire on – as he has.

But as we walk the streets of Imperial Rome with Flavia Albia, we are able to immerse ourselves in her world. It’s a fascinating view of a time and place long subsumed by history, made all the more absorbing because as much as many things are different, human beings don’t seem to have changed a bit.

For good and for ill. Considering Albia’s profession, she’s better off if a few more people are doing ill – as then they might need her services as an “informer” – otherwise known as a private inquiry agent or, as anachronistic as the term would be – private detective.

In Deadly Election, she has two cases to wrangle with. One comes to her through her friend – and possibly her eventual lover, Manlius Faustus. He’s already been elected to public office, but he’s now mentoring his childhood friend into the business. They’re using Albia’s services to investigate their rivals to see if some dirt can be found to foul up their campaigns – while trying to keep ahead of whatever dirt their opponents might dig up on them.

But the election has already turned deadly, as Albia’s other work, assisting with the family auction house, has turned up a dead body locked in a storage crate scheduled for auction. At first, Albia has no clue to the corpse’s identity, but as she investigates she discovers that the late lamented may not have had an enemy in the world, but he certainly had a relative in that race for public office.

It’s up to Albia to figure out who done it and why at a time and place where forensics were non-existence, women officially had no public role (unofficially was an entirely other matter) and where everyone is afraid to talk because the emperor’s agents are everywhere – looking for possible – or potential traitors.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what makes these series fun is that each book begins with what almost seems like a lot of extraneous information. Information that turns out not to have been extraneous at all by the time the story ends. But it does feel like an immersion process, that it takes time to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with Albia’s Rome as she experiences it.

And to get used to her first-person voice, because she’s an intelligent outsider who has learned to be whoever and whatever she needs to be to get the job done and get paid by her client. But behind her mask of professional politeness she’s wry and snarky and frequently wishes she could let loose with a cutting remark or ten – because so many of her clients deserve it. Her thoughts can feel very modern, just as her adopted father’s did, but it works surprisingly well.

As Flavia goes on with her business and takes us through her Rome, we start to feel the cobbles under our feet, the mud between our toes, and even smell the overwhelming decay of the liquefying corpse the auction house’s staff find locked in a chest.

At first we’re watching her, and then we’re with her, in a way that wouldn’t work nearly as well if the story didn’t circle around to the case the way it does.

A lot of this particular story is about family ties and nepotism in politics. (Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?) Also it takes place in the middle of a very long, very hot summer, and that seems familiar as well. Forensics are non-existent. She has to solve her cases by painstakingly asking questions of everyone involved and piecing together the parts of the answers that might be true.

It’s easy for both Albia and the reader to get lost in the cover ups and lies, and isn’t that just politics all over.

At the same time, Albia’s relationship with Faustus is driving her crazy. He seems to be the only man in Rome immune to her charms. He’s divorced, she’s a widow, there’s no reason they can’t embark on an affair. Except that they are not of the same class. How much social opprobrium he’s willing to endure is not something she’s willing to risk her heart on.

But this case throws them together at every turn. Which makes it a lot of fun for the reader to wonder whether they’re going to get together or even if they should, while Albia takes a hard look at all the candidates for office and all the murder suspects for that poor corpse and begins to think they might be one and the same.

The heart wants what the heart wants, the cases aren’t going to be easy to solve, and the emperor is insanely paranoid – adding a level of unpredictable danger to a situation that no one except Flavia Albia wants to cope with in the first place!

But it’s all a lot of fun for any reader, like this one, who loves historical mysteries set in unusual times and places. And for any reader who likes their protagonists to have an inner asshole voice that isn’t always as inner as it should be.

In other words, I had a ball with this book, even if Albia wasn’t always having one herself. I’ll be back sometime with the next book in the series, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, the next time I’m in the right mood, if only to see how Albia’s romance is – or isn’t – going!

Review: Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis

Review: Enemies at Home by Lindsey DavisEnemies at Home (Flavia Albia Mystery, #2) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #2
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on July 15, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favours for friends. Don’t work with relatives. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive. 
“Will I never learn?”

In Ancient Rome, the number of slaves was far greater than that of free citizens. As a result, often the people Romans feared most were the “enemies at home,” the slaves under their own roofs. Because of this, Roman law decreed that if the head of a household was murdered at home, and the culprit wasn’t quickly discovered, his slaves—all of them, guilty or not—were presumed responsible and were put to death. Without exception.
When a couple is found dead in their own bedroom and their house burglarized, some of their household slaves know what is about to happen to them.  They flee to the Temple of Ceres, which by tradition is respected as a haven for refugees. This is where Flavia Albia comes in. The authorities, under pressure from all sides, need a solution. Albia, a private informer just like her father, Marcus Didius Falco, is asked to solve the murders, in this mystery from Lindsey Davis.

My Review:

The past is another country, they do things differently there – or so the saying goes.

In my reading of this particular book, the saying can be interpreted more than one way. The Flavia Albia series is set in Imperial Rome in the year 89 AD, during the reign of the emperor Domitian. And I first encountered Flavia, or at least her adopted father Marcus Didius Falco, in the first book in his series, The Silver Pigs, 30 years ago, at a time when I had a one hour plus commute to and from work each day, and good, unabridged audiobooks were still pretty thin on the ground. Falco’s world-weary voice made a long journey shorter and considerably more entertaining.

I welcomed Flavia Albia back into my reading life with all the enthusiasm of greeting a long-lost and much-missed friend. After all, she is a chip off the disreputable old block in all the best ways!

Both Flavia and Falco were private informers and inquiry agents, in other words, private detectives, in an imperial Rome that for all of historical trappings feels a lot more contemporary than most readers probably expected. One of the things that this author does so well is to emphasize the things that we have in common, rather than the details that differentiate that time from our own.

After all, Flavia and Falco are both paid to investigate wandering spouses and uncover criminal activity. While technology has changed a lot in the intervening millennia, it’s not difficult to get caught up in the writer’s interpretation that human nature hasn’t changed much, if at all, in that same period – if ever.

But the setting does play its part. In this case, Flavia is hired by an up-and-coming official that she’s worked with before, Tiberius Manlius Faustus, on a case that she has to break all of her own rules to take – and almost immediately wishes that she hadn’t.

Faustus has hired Albia to determine which, if any, of the slaves from the household of burgled and murdered newlyweds were culpable in the crime. If she can’t determine that some of them neither participated in the murder, nor the theft, nor sat back and allowed it all to happen while they stood idly by, they’ll all be killed in the Coliseum – as public fodder for the beasts.

It’s clear from her initial interviews of the potential subjects that they are all hiding something. The question that Albia has to figure out is whether they’re merely covering up a bit of spiteful backbiting and petty thievery, or whether they are responsible for theft of a staggering – in more ways than one – amount of silver serving ware and the murder of their masters.

Albia finds herself caught between the officials who want a quick solution, a criminal gang unwilling to take responsibility for a job they didn’t do, her own meddling uncles, neighbors who seem to have seen nothing and heard less, and a group of people who seem to be lying at every turn.

Just as she decides that this is one case that she’s never going to solve, there’s another body. A body that can’t be laid at the feet of the original suspects, as Albia was interviewing them all at the time!

Once the case breaks wide open, with Albia squarely on the scene this time, she finally has a chance to figure out what really happened the first time around. Before anyone else winds up dead – justly or not.

Escape Rating A-: Slipping back into Albia’s world was like slipping into a warm bath or under a comfy blanket – in spite of the story being just chock full of lying witnesses, murder suspects and dead bodies. Mystery is a comfort read because it’s the romance of justice. More or less. It may start with a dead body, whether much lamented or completely unlamented, but it ends with good triumphing, or at least normal order prevailing, while evil, or at least misguided criminals, receive their just desserts.

There are two things that make this series, as well as its predecessor featuring Albia’s father Falco.

One is the first-person, cynical, sometimes world-weary voice of the protagonist. Admittedly, Falco was a bit more world-weary than Albia, but by the end of his series in Nemesis he was a bit older than Albia is here. Not that Albia is a newbie in either her work or her life, as this story opens she is 29, a widow with no children, and has been working in her father’s old profession for a number of years.

She’s had plenty of time and experience to observe human behavior in all its ugliness to earn the wry cynicism in her perspective. Also, her world is a bit darker than her father’s and not just because there are more obstacles in her way as a woman doing a man’s job, or any job at all. The Emperor Vespasian, who Falco worked under and occasionally worked for, was a much different man than Domitian, the emperor of Albia’s time.

For one thing, Vespasian was a soldier, a realist, and generally not insane. A condition that Domitian is heading towards by this point in history. Falco had friends in high places when he was a private informer, while during Albia’s time no one would want to have friends in those same places if they had any sense. Which she certainly does.

The other thing that makes this series work is the way that the author brings the commonalities of life in Imperial Rome to life. It’s a big, complicated city, a center of government, a hive of activity. And in the complexities of life in a major metropolis, we see that some things are the same. People gossip about their neighbors. Divorces are more often acrimonious than friendly. Some people rub other people the wrong way. Life in a big city is portrayed as not all that different once you get past 20th or 21st century technology.

Even though Albia doesn’t have contemporary forensics to help her solve this case, the things she does have to work with haven’t changed all that much. She has to examine the crime scene, interview the witnesses, interrogate the suspects, establish a timeline, pull together the evidence she does have and determine who is innocent and who is guilty.

And we get vicarious pleasure in watching her do so, as well as observing the tentative steps she takes towards a relationship with Manlius. Something that we’ll see develop in later books in the series. I’m looking forward to Albia’s next case, Deadly Election, the next time I need to see someone receive their just desserts!