I didn’t consciously keep the review of this back, but once I realised I hadn’t posted, and that Saturnalia really should begin on December 17th, it was cinch to delay it right till the day itself!
It is the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Marcus Didius Falco and Helena have returned from Greece only to find that Helena’s brother Justinus’s marital problems have exploded. Justinus’s first love, Veleda, a tribal leader and prophetess from Germania, has been brought to Rome and put under house arrest pending a ritual sacrifice at her capturer’s Triumph.
Justinus is love-struck once more and his wife, the temperamental Claudia, is enraged. Then Veleda escapes leaving behind a corpse. Justinus disappears too and it is up to Falco and the Chief Spy Anacrites to try to find the missing couple all against the backdrop of the orgiastic holiday period when literally anything goes . . .
This is the 18th in the Falco series, and unlike a couple of recent ones, shows no sign of flagging. Or maybe it’s re-energised, since Saturnalia is a jaw-dropping (or possibly drawer-dropping) ten-day exhibition of Roman excess that gives the word orgy its bad name. Just like Christmas, the protagonists are fretting over visitors, how to feed them the expected festive fare, and trying to keep warm in the Roman winter. Chestnuts are roasting on hot coals at street corners, and work is shutting down for the festival. Except for Marcus Didius Falco, who investigates unseemly deaths.
This well-crafted mystery takes you through the twists and turns of Ancient Rome, down grubby streets and dark alleyways, through garishly lit markets and ghostly graveyards – and that’s just the plot! The descriptions of the settings bring it vividly to mind, months after I read it, with no prompting at all, which suggest this was one of the best of Lindsey Davis’s works (the last one I had to look up again). There are plenty of suspects with secrets, and plenty of people you suspect of lying – but which are lying to protect the innocent and which to protect the guilty, is rather harder to work out. There are plenty of dead ends for Falco to overcome, and the author leads the reader a merry dance as (s)he keeps up with our hero as he avoids the pressures of home by setting out on more fruitless searches.
I enjoyed this one so much I might read it again, to get that full-on Saturnalia feeling!
Another excellent tale in the Falco series. Ancient Rome comes alive at the holiday of Saturnalia, but headless corpses take all the fun out of the wining and dining. And if that wasn’t all: Falco has to find an escaped wild woman of the north, with whom both he and his brother-in-law have secret pasts…. Plenty of action, and twists, and exceptionally good descriptions in this long-running series.