In Nemesis we left Falco, Lindsey Davis's Roman sleuth, on a sombre note, suffering the loss of a father and a child. Perhaps life had become too dark for him to take centre-stage in another novel.
We don't lose sight of Falco now – he has cheered up enough to sell a load of fake antiques at an auction – but he is in the background. The sleuthing tradition is carried on by his daughter, Flavia Albia, adopted in Britain and now living by her wits.
She has acquired Falco's sardonic intelligence and has her own hideaway deep in an enticing Roman slum – the secret retreat creative people dream about. But Albia emerges from her bolthole for a profitable case that might employ her talents. Falco has trained her in observation, so when she discovers that a client has dropped dead without paying a bill, our heroine sets out to look for unusual features.
The heir seems well disposed, unlikely to have bumped off the unpleasant old skinflint, but the death is one of a number of such unexplained cases. Is there a silent killer stalking Rome? Albia, showing a particular interest in these cases, becomes a suspect herself. Researching into Roman death registers, she seems to acquire an admirer in the archivist – a relationship put in jeopardy when she kebabs one of his officials. Soon we are plunging into the festering old alleys that Davis does so well.
The season is the Feast of Ceres on the Ides of April, when epic games and festivals take place, as does an ancient and unpleasant rite involving cruelty to foxes. It is characteristic of Davis's skilled plotting that this episode is integral to the story and not merely the usual nasty add-on involving the Roman arena. The festival, where the vestals play an important role, gives Albia the opportunity to disguise herself in virginal white and carry a small but effective dagger under the draperies.
Flavia proves a worthy successor to her wily father and, as always, under all the excitement runs the solidity of Davis's historical knowledge: the silent killings were recorded by an ancient historian. Sudden death in ancient Rome – there was a lot of it about. Thank the gods!