Tue
May 7 2013 12:00pm

Fresh Meat: The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis

The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis is a new mystery by the author of the Marcus Didius Falco series, set in ancient Rome and featuring a no-nonsense investigator who just happens to be a woman (available June 11, 2013).

A woman PI (informer, to use the period parlance) on the mean streets of ancient Rome. That’s the one-line summary, but what Lindsey Davis gives us with this kick-off of a brand new series is much more than that.

Flavia Albia is hard-boiled (something the Stargazer bar can actually manage to do correctly) and taking on cases that no one else will touch in a city that is steeped in its own corruption and mistrust.

These are not the pristine streets and lofty places described in history books. This is the Rome that actually was.

Under our latest emperor, when people committed adultery—as they did like rabbits, because he was a despot and they needed cheering up—they did not write down details. Domitian saw it as his sacred role to punish scandalous behaviour. His agents were always looking for evidence.

Repression had spread to the aediles. Encouraged by our austere and humourless ruler, the market monitors were extra conscientious these days. They were cracking down on docket-diddling, fraudulent weights and pavement-encroachment, though their most lucrative target was prostitution. Here in their lair, I saw massive armoured chests, where all the fines from miserable bar girls could be stored. Bar girls were fair game for the purity police. Traditionally, whenever a waitress served a customer a drink, he could order a bunk upstairs as a chaser. That’s if he wanted to catch the crabs or risk having to slip an officer a backhander if the authorities paid that bar a surprise visit, looking for unregistered whores—and inevitably finding them.

It’s refreshing to see that the greatest city in history is getting the life it deserves and shaking off the reputation it garnered in history books with its miraculous inventions and government. Rome has always been impressive; I’m not denying it, but The Ides of April gives the city its character and life, making it the perfect place for a great crime story.

Just to survive the conditions in Rome a person has to be tough. Flavia is such a woman with the extra heaping helping of being a woman in a predominantly male society. Despite her proven record, people want to belittle her, but she takes it in stride knowing the best way to overcome is simply to do the job. “I’ve been doing my job for twelve years now and I do not need you throwing out that stale line, ‘Should we ask someone more experienced—and male—to come in on this?’ ”

She confronts aediles, vigiles, runners, tribunes, relatives, and more as she tries to solve the murders in the city, her thick skin better than a centurion’s armor, and she knows how to handle herself, unafraid to say it like it is and demand what she wants.

He spoke in a low, more intense voice. “From what I heard this morning, you are tough. And an interesting character . . .  You don’t seem perturbed that you have been discussed by people?”

I smiled gently. “I always wait until I know exactly which colourful anecdote—or which fanciful lie—has been told about me.” We tussled in silence for a while, with him resisting in order to tease me, then I added in a murmur: “And to whom the lie was told.”

Andronicus projected his wide-eyed amazed look, eyebrows up and forehead wrinkled.

“Give!” I commanded more sternly. To help him out, I said, “I’ve learned that Metellus Nepos told Manlius Faustus that he was hiring an informer.”

This is who she is. After years working as an informer and after being the daughter of an informer (and after the trials of her past), Flavia’s developed a hard edge and a taste for the rougher side of life.

On one of the landings, Andronicus pulled me to him and we kissed. His kissing was light and fluttery, compared with how I really liked it, but naturally he was just making overtures for more serious work later . . .

Ancient Rome, a hard-boiled PI that Sam Spade would tip his hat to, and murders at a time when not even fingerprinting existed—Flavia Albia has her work cut out for her as she has to solve the case purely on her wits, while trying not to draw the wrong kind of attention from corrupt officials. The Ides of April is a fun romp through history while giving great insight into a Rome that more than likely existed, including a woman informer.

See more coverage of new releases in our Fresh Meat series.

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Andy Adams is an adjunct professor of English at various colleges in the Phoenix area. He has an affectation for fedoras as they complement his villainous goatee. He’s been known to poke his head onto Twitter @A3Writer, but he’s never been big into birds. He blogs at A3writer.com about writing, teaching, and the conquest of fictional worlds—they’re more fun than the real world.

Read all posts by Andy Adams for Criminal Element.

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