The Ides of April
Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99
Most golden-age mystery lovers will already be aware of Davies’ most famous creation, Ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco. Unlike most writers of historical fiction, Lindsey Davis gave us characters that are believable, an Ancient Rome that you’d want to live in and stories that, with minor alterations, could happen anytime, anywhere: the essence of character-driven plotting coupled with a breadth and depth of research that’ll take your breath away. With Falco’s story told, Davis moves instead to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, your typical bright-spark sharp-talking tough-yet-damaged beauty just waiting for the right man to melt her heart. Vespasian’s Rome of hot days and sunlight has given way to the darkness of the Emperor Domitian, a darkness punctuated by occasional screams.
A serial killer stalks the streets, and for the honest (and not-so-honest) Roman maiden Albia is the only hope, supported by a varyingly-helpful supporting cast of city guards, family members (wisely, the lead cast of the Falco novels are fondly mentioned but never appear), love interests, doormen and bathhouse attendants. But, unlike in the Falco novels (which contained, on the page, the same supporting cast relayed above) Albia is alone. She lacks friends, her family don’t appear and, for a woman in a very brutal man’s work, the life of an informer is lonely and scary. And Albia is a lot less human than Falco was.
Even from the beginning Falco had a best friend, an ordinary supporting cast of an estranged father, interfering mother, irritating sisters and a brother he couldn’t quite live up to: a background the ordinary reader could identify with, coupled with a humour that never slipped. Albia’s background involves a dead husband, a vanishing lover, rape, life on the street, orphaned in a massacre as a baby, and is a woman in a man’s world. Falco’s background was a deliberate subversion of the clichés that Albia’s background embodies and something is lost as a result. Albia lacks both the humour and the human element that made Falco so appealing, and the world she lives in is cold and brutal. Compare the first lines of The Silver Pigs:
‘When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes’
with the opening of The Ides of April
“Lucius Bassus was three years old when his mother took her eyes off him and he ran out of the house to play…he was knocked down and killed by a builder’s cart”
The distinction becomes clear: we’re not in Kansas anymore. The detective element, which is usually the justification for darkness in a plotline, is sound but never becomes sparkling, while the detective is obnoxious and almost relentlessly unlikeable.
And it takes a great deal of time to realise that this is not only a strength, but the entire point. Seen through the eyes of a woman, life in Ancient Rome is barbaric and unfriendly and, though the culprit is obvious and the final ending a twist rather than a revelation, the pleasure is entirely in the ride. Above all, The Ides of April offers something new. Albia is who she is because of her environment, and makes for a timely reminder that, with cosiness of the Falco novels is ripped away, Domitian’s Rome was not a nice place to be and ancient history at last reclaims its alien feel while keeping the timelessness of the characters. The later Falco novels (bar Nemesis) had become interchangeable, with Falco leaving behind a Rome we’d seen too many times before for an extended travelogue of tourist destinations, hampered by an ever-expanding family of supporting characters who were, by now, too established to be in any danger.
It’s a difficult trick, pulling off a new series in the same setting with a similar protagonist and Davis does it with aplomb. It’s easy to forget that the Falco series didn’t find its feet until the third or fourth book and The Ides of April is a very promising start to a series unlike anything we’ve seen before. Flavia Albia has some way to go as a character but what Ides shows, above all else, is the Lindsey Davis still has it, and that her Ancient Rome still has a lot more to give.