The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis is the fifth book in the Flavia Albia series.
My name is Albia, Flavia Albia. I carry out work for troubled people who need answers. I am efficient and discreet. I came to Rome from Britain, which makes me mysterious and exotic. But the bureaucrats knew that, as the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, I could be passed off as a decent, intelligent woman whose mother was a senator's daughter and her father a man of standing in Rome. Wonderfully for the palace, I had just married a well-regarded magistrate—and, as the Daily Gazette said, I would soon be seen nibbling nuts with him among people of the best quality at the Roman Games.
For tricky interviews with highly placed widows, I was ideal.
It's been 20 years since the fall of Nero, and Rome has mostly bounced back from his mad rule. Of course, this being Rome, there's a new tyrant on the throne: Domitian, who can be quite as ruthless and bloody.
Enter our heroine, Flavia Albia. An “informer”—just another way of saying private investigator—following in her adoptive father's footsteps, Albia has plenty on her plate. She's just been married and is settling into a new house, for starters.
Oh, and her husband was struck by lightning at their wedding. That's the sort of thing that'll throw a kink in your usual schedule. Luckily for Albia, her husband Tiberius has survived his natural disaster and should hopefully, with time, fully recover.
She hopes, anyway.
She hardly has enough time to worry about her hubby, though, because high-ranking officials from the palace are at her door requiring her services. It seems the Emperor will be returning from a military campaign soon, and the palace wishes to find evidence to support his recent decisions to execute a pair of high-ranking governors suspected of colluding in an aborted revolt.
The good-looking man looked down his long nose at me. “I invite you to interview the wives of Lucullus and Cerialis. See if they will confirm that their husbands were supporters of Saturninus.”
I scoffed. The women would never admit that. “It would be foolish to reveal pillow talk. To admit they were aware of the revolt in advance would damage themselves, any children they have, and other relatives.” Plots in Rome never went away. Executing two governors was merely the start; ripples would be flowing outward from this incident for years. Nobody close to the men Domitian had condemned would ever emerge into the light, free from suspicion.
Seemingly routine interviews, however, lead Albia into a tangled web of court intrigue, spies, and international politics. When her first job seems to be wrapped up, another palace official appears with a second job—one that turns out to be tied to the first as well as a traitorous conspiracy involving a false Nero puppet.
Things are never simple in Ancient Rome.
The Third Nero is the fifth Flavia Albia mystery from Lindsey Davis and further cements her knowledge of her near-mythic setting. Albia's Rome is a living, breathing, sometimes stinking thing, with all of the unpleasant details we forget about when we look at restored statues or the crumbling Colosseum.
This is a historical story, but it reminds us that despite cultural differences, people never truly change. The same cycles of love, death, and greed have played out since civilization began. Life in a big city is largely the same regardless of the city.
Any False Nero had to compete for public interest with the nitty-gritty of our daily life: senatorial decrees, the harvest, aristocratic births, crime, scandal, wills, portents, athletics results and the so-called military successes of our all-too-living emperor, Domitian.
The setting may be Rome, 89 AD, but the tone of The Third Nero is pretty darn close to noir. There's something hardboiled about Albia, who's more than a little cynical, knows her job, knows her city—and knows better than to trust anyone, even her employers. The story is peopled with informants, assassins, soldiers, femme fatales, insidious traitors, and double agents. Dual investigations end up being connected. By the end, there's been plenty of violence and bloodshed.
The only sticky wicket here is that the first half of the story is a bit confusing, purely because so many characters have up to five names, in true Roman fashion. Keeping everyone straight requires some mental gymnastics; thankfully, Davis has included a helpful cast list at the beginning for easy (and frequent) reference. There's also quite a bit of talk about the different classes and positions men can hold (equestrian, freedman, legate, aedile, etc.), but once you get into the real meat of the story, things move quickly enough for you to coast past these minor confusions.
The Third Nero is a solid addition to the Flavia Albia series and another feather in Davis's cap. Now that Albia's helped thwart a plot to put a pretender on the throne, it'll be interesting to see what the capable informer does next.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.