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by Lindsey Davis
The memoirs of Marcus Didius Falco (cont'd)
We were both silent. I was thinking about the implications of Veleda’s escape. It was not that she could launch a military attack here. But her presence right in Rome was a disaster. That she had been imported by an ex-consul, a high-ranking provincial administrator, one of the Emperor’s favourites, would damage public confidence. Rutilius Gallicus had been stupid. There would be outrage and dismay. Belief in the Emperor would shrink. The army would look pitiful. Rutilius – well, few people had heard much of Rutilius, except in Germany. But if word got back there, the effect on the province of Germany could be dangerous. Veleda was still a big name on both sides of the River Rhenus. As a so-called prophetess, the woman had always caused a frisson of terror that was out of proportion to her real influence; still, she had summoned up armies of rebels, and those rebels had wreaked havoc.
A potentially major disaster!
Falcophiles will remember The Iron Hand of Mars, where Falco is sent across the Rhenus river into the wilds of the Germania to negotiate with the priestess Veleda, who then seduces Falco’s young brother-in-law, the military tribune Justinus Camillus. Or did she? The years have gone by, Falco has moved up in the world and has become a relatively sober pater familias; and Justinus is married also, how happily, remains to be seen. Both he and the Spanish heiress Claudia Rufina are headstrong people.
And, now, after Veleda has been captured by Rutilius Gallicus – Quintus Julius Cordinus Gaius Rutilius Gallicus, that is – and brought to Rome to be displayed in his ovation, she has managed to escape! So the informer Falco is called to the Palace and asked to find her, as a favor to Titus Caesar, while his arch-enemy, the Chief Spy Anacrites, is searching for her too. And to make matters worse, Justinus has also disappeared after a bruising fight with Claudia. And what’s even more disturbing, after Veleda has escaped, the body of her host’s brother-in-law has been discovered dead, with the severed head thrown into the pool.
And worst of all, this is the eve of the Saturnalia, festival of havoc and misrule, and Falco has to produce Veleda by the end of it. The Saturnalia, of course, are played for all they are worth, including a holiday-eve party of the Fourth Cohort of the Vigiles, catered by Falco’s inept sister Junia. Falco’s large extended family and in-laws are given their usual space. Falco’s mother gets cataract treatment as a Saturnalia present, and father Geminus … but read that for yourself. Aside from this family byplay, we do learn a lot about the various disciplines of ancient medicine, since the erstwhile host of Veleda, the judge Quadrumatus Labeo, employs several doctors for himself and his various family members, and Veleda has been ailing ever since her arrival in Rome – although she may be faking this. Falco’s interest is spurred, and Helena’s curiosity even more, so we get treated to an investigation of medical philosophies, as the pair interviews the various doctors. There is also Zosime, a former temple slave, who treats women and the homeless.
While Anacrites has the Praetorian Guard to assist him, Falco is assigned a centurion and some soldiers who have served in Germania Inferior and know what the priestess looks like, to reside in his house. Falco’s long-suffering spouse Helena Justina makes the best of the situation by putting them to domestic work when they are not assisting Falco with his search. And of course his old friend and now brother-in-law, Petronius Longinus, cohort commander at the vigiles, assists too in trying to trace down the missing. Along the way, Falco, with justified misgivings, encounters various kinds of Germans, including the aging remnants of Nero’s former bodyguard. He is hampered by not being allowed to admit that Veleda is in Rome, let alone has escaped, while at least half of Rome, including these Germans, is aware of those facts. As usual, a series of adventures and happenings ensue, some crazy and some plain scary, such as Falco’s encounter with the King of the Grove at Lake Nemi.
While all this sounds like one of the more rollicking installments in the mystery series, there is a definitely serious undercurrent. There is a parallel story of a potential serial murderer on the loose, which begins with a harrowing visit to the cemetery on the Via Appia. Falco had been given a tip that Veleda was seen there and sets out with the centurion and a few soldiers to investigate. He discovers that the cemetery has its own living inhabitants of fierce vagrants and slave run-aways, and Ms. Davis creates an eerie, hidden world of misfits. When bodies of vagrants and slaves show up in increasing numbers in the city, apparently having died a natural death, Falco decides to investigates. Hints and red herrings for the reading audience abound. When Falco and Helena finally meet Veleda, we are also treated to a somber scene.
When all mysteries are solved, not everyone survives without harm at the end. But Falco has gotten the better of the spy Anacrites, and at least there is still hope for Justinus and Claudia.
Well researched as usual. Don't mind the often modern vernacular (see below), instead, enjoy!© 2007 Irene B. Hahn
On the vernacular, here are some excerpts from the author’s AFTERWORD:
‘Words are real,’ says Falco to Albia in Chapter XVIII of this novel, ‘if other people understand their meaning.’ ‘Is this,’ enquires my editor in the margin of the manuscript, ‘your defence for your many neologisms?’ (most of which he has singled out with underlining and exclamation marks). I pacify him with a promise of an Afterword and talk of lunch.
I write about another culture, where people spoke another language, one which has mainly survived either in a literary form or as tavern wall graffiti. Many an argot must have existed in between. People sometimes discuss whether the Romans would really sound as I portray them – forgetting firstly that the Romans spoke Latin not English, and that on the streets and in the provinces they must have spoken versions of Latin that did not survive. I have to find my own ways to make narrative and dialogue convincing. I use various methods. Much of it is done by ‘ear’, and is difficult to describe even if I wanted to reveal the secret. Sometimes I merely deploy metaphors and similes … Sometimes I invent words; sometimes I am not even aware I have done it, but through nineteen books my British editor has diligently challenged me when he believes 1 have erred. Some years ago we reached an agreement that each manuscript might contain one neologism, or Lindseyism … I think very carefully about my choice of words – even when I make them up. When I do, I think they work. Try them out if you like, though do heed Falco’s caution: it is not necessary to know these words to be a Roman and you don't want people thinking you are eccentric . . .
by Lindsey Davis
St. Martin's Minotaur 2007
List Price US$23.95/£8.88 used & new
Other books in the Falco series:
The Silver Pigs
Shadows in Bronze
Venus in Copper
The Iron Hand of Mars
Last Act in Palmyra
Time to Depart
A Dying Light in Corduba
Three Hands in the Fountain
One Virgin Too Many
Two for the Lions
Ode to a Banker
A Body in the Bathhouse
The Jupiter Myth
See Delphi and Die
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group