Tue
Jul 14 2015 12:30pm

Fresh Meat: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis is the 3rd historical mystery in the Flavia Alba series set in Ancient Rome (available July 14, 2015).

Deadly Election, Lindsey Davis’s latest novel of ancient Rome is a rewarding read, especially given how 2016’s potential candidates are already pontificating and bloviating. Television pundits (a dirty word—not unlike the term “election” these days) discuss the race as if it were the latest episode of The Bachelor, promising the upcoming election will have all the gravitas of a TMZ broadcast. Davis’s novel beats reality. First, it isn’t depressing, because there’s no obligation to vote in the end, however odious the candidates. Second, it offers more actual information than a month’s worth of election news coverage. Third, the winner can’t screw up our lives.

Our able election guide is Flavia Albia, a young female informer during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. A shrewd setup—dead body found in a chest at her father’s auction house—allows her to offer wonderful descriptions of Roman art, household furnishings, business practices, and election campaigning. Interesting tidbits of all kinds flavor her accounts of the goings-on. They enlighten in entertaining ways, while demonstrating how Flavia Albia’s world is—and is not—like our own:

People with asthma should avoid men who are running for office. They are called candidates because on formal occasions they wear robes whitened with chalk. The Latin for “white” is candida. I found this year’s contenders by following the clouds of white dust and bystanders coughing … I am not entirely joking …

The candidates’ campaign process was called “going about.” They had to be continually on show, endlessly pleading for support. This was tiring for them and a bore for everybody else.

I watched the men taking their walks through the Forum. Each was accompanied by a helper, who told him the names of those they met. This was done openly, yet to be addressed familiarly was always taken as a compliment. The Roman public was pitifully easy to please. The candidate’s false intimacy was sealed with a handshake …

Author Davis, renowned for novels that feature an array of Roman emperors and such incomparable fictional characters as Marcus Didius Falco, makes good use of Flavia Albia here. Falco’s daughter demonstrates humor, keen powers of observation, and a willingness to behave badly. She is not subject to any sense of political correctness, thus carrying us wholly along into her era. What Roman would flinch at these descriptions of her family’s father-and-son bankers, the suberbly named Nothokleptes?

Nothokleptes Junior was at his barber’s in the upper colonnade. He was shady, even by the Egyptian standards from which he took both his monetary heritage and his crazy hairstyle. His rings were so chunky they kept his fingers splayed. Born and bred in Rome, he still managed to find tunics that were too long and too tight over his big belly, so he looked Oriental....         

His father was sitting with him, now reduced by age to watery smiles and silence. Always a heavy man, Nothokleptes Senior had spread slowly into a vast blob of smooth flesh. They had pegged a barber’s napkin under his chin, even though he was not being shaved, in case he dribbled. He didn’t know of time of day, but if you put a bag of mixed coins in front of him, he would rapidly sort it into denominations while palming a percentage by some sleight of hand you would never spot. Most of his brain was far away, but his essence persisted. He still loved the feel of copper and silver under his clever fingers.

Characters like Nothokleptes are more engaging than the candidates in the Republican-sized field vying for election to aedile (an official in ancient Rome responsible for policing, public works, games, and the supply of grains). Those men—a group that includes the fatuous, the fawning, and the feeble—employ agents to badmouth each other. Nothing is too terrible to broadcast to the voters. In fact, their comments reminded me of something I heard a prospective candidate say just the other day…

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Kate Lincoln writes crime fiction informed by her years in clinical medicine and as a homeopath and EMT, most of which is set in New Jersey horse country called the Somerset Hills.

See all of Kate Lincoln’s posts for Criminal Element.

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