The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis is the 4th book in the Flavia Albia historical mystery series.
I’m honestly not sure why mysteries set in Ancient Rome are my favorite of the historical mystery subgenre. Perhaps some part of it is due to the cultural emphasis that gives equal importance to both the law and to merriment. Perhaps it’s because the social mores pertaining to women and their legal standing in society are similar enough to modern times that women investigators in these books can be more proactive and less restricted in what they may do than in many of their counterparts in other long-ago times and faraway places.
Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series continues in this fine tradition with a plucky informer, as her job title is officially known, whose views on many subjects would not be out of place in our own era.
In this 4th installment of the series, Flavia has found happiness in her relationship with Tiberius Manlius Faustus, a magistrate who has recently purchased a construction business with only one job currently on the books: the renovation of a bar named The Garden Of The Hesperides. Digging up the outdoor area to install a water feature uncovers a skeleton that could be all that remains of a waitress who disappeared a decade earlier. With no other cases, and with Tiberius busy with the renovations, Flavia offers to take on the case when asked:
“Well, you’re far too busy to investigate. I’d better take this on,” I answered, with resignation and curiosity. That’s a dangerous mix, well-known to people in my trade.
My treasure grinned. “Don’t expect me to pay fees!”
“Oh, is your wife keeping you short of pocket money?”
“She’s a tyrant. Gives me nothing.”
“Get a new one,” I advised him.
We were both smiling now.
Both Tiberius and Flavia were married to other people previously, and while they enjoy the ease and affection of their current relationship, as evidenced in their loving banter, Flavia, at least, is leery of the formal wedding that Tiberius is set on having. She hadn’t had one with her previous husband and is apprehensive of the expense and time necessary to arrange one now.
Thus, she jumps at the chance to distract herself with a murder investigation, beginning a fascinating journey for her and for the reader into both the legitimate and seamy practices of eateries in Ancient Rome. We also learn a lot about weddings in Ancient Rome, seen through Flavia’s refreshingly wry point of view, as well as about their version of forensic science. And throughout, we’re racing alongside Flavia to discover the killer’s identity, especially as more bodies begin to turn up, with the suspicion of more than one murderer being involved.
Mystery and history aside, another thing The Graveyard of the Hesperides has going for it is its strong supporting cast. Lindsey Davis has a good eye for creating personalities on the page that are as realistic as they are delightful. Here, we go back to discussing the impending wedding and the reactions of those involved:
I sweetly assured [Tiberius] I was not intending to worry, since I myself did not want any progress on his terrible idea. He remained relaxed. I was beginning to see how he handled me, never becoming excited if I dug my heels in. [Our union] would probably work.
He had found helpers for his project. Two dark little handmaids had inveigled themselves into his confidence, wedding planners who could have organized Pluto’s union to Proserpina in the Underworld, all wailing and downturned torches: my sisters, aged sixteen and fourteen. Tiberius had promised them a free hand, so long as they created a huge splash that would tell everyone on the Aventine he and I were married. Julia and Favonia were thrilled. They knew everything that ought to happen, much of it mythical in origin. They had no idea of common sense or cost.
Well-researched but never heavy-handed in presenting its scholarship, The Graveyard Of The Hesperides is an entertaining tale of detection in Ancient Rome, with a heroine whose opinions are easy to sympathize with, despite the gap of centuries. The supporting cast of characters are not only believable, but relatable as well. I really enjoyed Ms. Davis’s writing and am looking forward to reading more of the series, especially when I need another fix of detection in Ancient Rome.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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