Flavia Albia returns for her third adventure in “Deadly Election”. It is a vast improvement on her introduction in “The Ides of April” where the novel suffers so much from a caustic tone. Yet, the sequel – “Enemies at Home” – made a marked improvement to return to the easy pace of the Falco novels, with a softening of our heroine and a focus on plot and characterisation replacing the meiosis and tapinosis that dominated the observations of our sleuth.
The story opens in July A.D. 89 where Albia’s aedile “noble friend”, Marcus Manlius Faustus, is working alongside a colleague seeking election in the upcoming ballot. Sextus Vibius Marinus is up against Trebonius and Arulenus “the smooth-talking bruisers”, Ennius Verecundus, “the mother’s boy”, Salvius Gratus, and Dillius Surus, a “lush” with “enviable pots of money”. Then there’s the one who dropped out after losing the Emperor Domitian’s favour – Volusius Firmus.
The action starts with a cadaver…shoved unceremoniously into a strong-box and putrefied to the point of being unable to identify – which is going to make Albia’s life harder. The problem is that said strong-box is part of an auction lot of the Callisti, an auction being run by Messrs. Falco & Co.. Add to the mix that the elections seem to involve the aforementioned Caelian family of Callisti where the familial associations amongst most of the candidates raises a suspicion of nepotism and you’ve got a murder wrapped up in a box, surrounded by an election, confounded by a family.
Not much to solve then.
Oh…and Albia also has to indelicately fence her way with Marcus. Will they, won’t they? Not even Albia’s sure. After all she understands that “I could have been married. I simply preferred to keep looking for a man whose habits and personality did not fill me with rage.”
There’s a few historical “mistakes” which is odd for an author of Davis’ pedigree. Still…one example is the “sixty other forgotten anti-dictators who had bravely stabbed Caesar”. Only a few did the stabbing, the sixty comes as a count of those present. There is the, unfortunately all too common in recent historical fiction novels, usage of “modern” vernacular – “Strong-box” is an seventeenth century word, “arcades” is a eighteenth century one; use of “spanking columns” and “blighters”…well, not only do you have to be born in the past 70 years to understand it, you also need to be British. There’s an uncomfortable brush with racial stereotypes when we read “he looked Oriental. Which in any lexicon is another word for dubious.” Davis needs to understand her audience is global these days and such a term is unacceptable in many societies. But…these are minor sniffles.
This novel is a thinking mystery. A lot of that thinking is done by Albia as she teases out the facts of both the murders and her relationship with Marcus. All set against a nervous background of Domitian’s Rome. There’s a fine and very subtle rhyming nod in this book to Davis’ first Falco novel – The Silver Pigs – when Albia observes: “Latin is the argot of despots, intended to confuse people. Domitianus adoranda est. The tyrant must be worshipped.”
The novel has to delve deeply into the true power in any Roman family – the matriarch. Behind everything sits the uneasy power of five women – the Julias, and it is to them that Albia eventually has too look in order to find any kind of truth. Indeed, the entire novel is built around the well-trodden…”Hell hath no fury than a woman…” you get my point. Eventually we reach our denouement after an excursion outside of Rome and leave Albia well pleased with her maturity. In fact…she’s become worthy enough to follow in Falco’s footsteps.
I like these “Next Generation” novels. Without trying to be patronizing, there is definitely a feminine feel to the writing and the action. There’s no teenage boy silly fight scenes, no testosterone laden cliches that you’ll find in a lot of Roman fiction these days – I refer to the “Legionary Books” of the like of Kane, Scarrow, Riches et al.. It is closer to that other great sleuth – David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus – and I’d recommend Flavia Albia to both genders…there’s something in these for everyone.