Flavia Albia returns for her second adventure in “Enemies at Home”. This time the meiosis and tapinosis of her vernacular has gone, to be replaced with a more wry, intelligent assessment of her Roman city folk. Which is a vast improvement on her introduction in “The Ides of April” where the novel suffers so much from a caustic tone that I very nearly didn’t read this sequel. I am glad I did pick this up because it is much more Falco-like, the mystery is confusingly brilliant, the wit has just that right blend of acerbity and tongue-in-cheek humour that had us scrambling to buy the next Falco novel.
The novel opens fairly swiftly with a triple murder on the Esquiline. It looks like a robbery gone wrong, what with the disappearance of a fine haul of silverware but there’s something nagging Albia about the deaths of Valerius Aviola, his new bride Mucia Lucilia, and a door porter named Nicostratus. The former have been strangled, the latter bashed in with a plank. In the interim a fair few of the suspects – a gaggle of terrified household slaves – have taken refuge in the sanctum of the Aventine’s Temple of Ceres. The case has been tasked to Titianus, vigile of the Second Cohort but Albia finds her simmering love possibility of Tiberius Manlius Faustus – plebeian aedile – asking her to investigate, setting up her up in the guest-room of the Aviola’s house and lending her his sixteen year old slave Dromo to provide daily reports. All of which is really an excuse for him to spend time with her.
Albia drags in some family help in the form of her two uncles: Aulus and Quintus. The latter who advises that “’Remember the proverbial answer – the cup bearer did it.’” Not quite true in this case, but it means the author can bind the reader tightly to the nostalgia of Falco (Helena Justina even makes an appearance at the dysenteric dénouement), a familiarity that makes us even more comfortable with the story.
The novel then plunges into an intellectual sleuthing. Albia embarks on conducting aural investigations, visiting trustees, wading through the complex relationships that comprise a Roman household, dangerously intercepting hardened gang members in dodgy pubs, visiting baths to glean information, and having drunken female soirees. All of which draws an almighty blank until a dog lead finally points us in the right direction. Not before another murder and an unfortunate suicide have occurred.
The suspects far outnumber the rest of the cast. Headed by Polycarpus – the household steward – and his wife Graecina there is also the elderly Amethystus – general worker; youthful Daphnus – attendant; Phaedrus, a door porter who loathes his door colleague Nicostratus primarily because they both are in lust with Amaranta, the luscious personal attendant to Mucia Lucilia; the philosopher Chrysodorus, Daphnus’ brother Melander who is a scribe; the virginal and naïve Olympe – terribly flute player; Diomedes who is a gardener who needs to be put out to pasture; the hugely pregnant (she gives birth during the novel) and utterly horrible Myla and, finally, Libycus – the personal attendant to the now dead Valerius Aviola. There are some assorted other characters associated with Aviola’s previous wife, Galla Simplica, and a few tenants in the houses next door to the murder scene. All of these add up to a list of possible suspects so long the action of novel is concerned with discerning motive and alibi rather than racing around Rome.
Albia can sniff out a conspiracy of silence, the problem is no one’s prepared to say anything because the slaves all know the fate that will befall them.
The novel has some modern concepts that don’t particularly sit well in ancient Rome; references, for instance to a “take-out waiter (who would be annoyed because he lost his tip).” or use of the terms “mezzanine”, “doily”, “squaddies”, and “witches”. There are also some spelling errors: “had had a”, “signifi-cant”, “deserts”, “perman-ent”. Most amusingly, there are several references to faecal matter as “pooh.” – I am sure A. A. Milne might be equally pleased his favourite bear makes an appearance in Rome, yet irritated at the means by which he does so.
This is a fine sequel by Lindsey Davis and any Falco fan should pick this one up. Forget the first, it’s terrible, but this gives hope that the ‘Falco Next Generation’. The novel is, as Albia realises:
“at its heart a genuine tragedy. It mattered that I should name whoever burst into Mucia Lucilia’s bedroom, killed her man and put that rope around her neck. It mattered too, that if people should have helped her, I should identify them too.”
Yes indeed. It matters also that we readers follow her on this mystery.