The Ides of April

by Lindsey Davis,  Hodder Paperbacks 2013, Pb 368 pages  ISBN 978-1444755848 (£5.99).

Lindsey Davis is best known for her series featuring the Roman detective M. Didius Falco.  She has now started a new series with a fresh central character: Flavia Albia.  This may seem to be nothing more than a shrewd marketing move, as after all women read fiction more than men and may be presumed to like the idea of a woman in the leading role.  It also fits in with 21st century ideas, even in Classics research, which seeks to find out and listen to the female voice in the ancient world.  Flavia Albia is, however, not a politically-correct figure who is just a back-projection of contemporary feminism onto an imperial Roman canvas.  Lindsey Davis is concerned to give her a proper back-story and an on-going concern throughout the book of her insecure and dangerous place as an investigator in a male-dominated world.  She is always concerned with her safety and her social position, forever calculating how far she can push the boundaries to get away with something outrageous in pursuit of her case.  Her world is the teeming inner city chaos of Domitian’s Rome, with a selection of cheats, drunks, social climbers and lazy officials as her surrounding companions.  All this is convincingly done; her world is far from the elite governing class known from cultural histories of Rome and to the great credit of the author there is scarcely a character in the plot who is known to us from history.  We are far closer here to a wall-painting from a bar in a museum exhibition of life in Pompeii than to the pages of Tacitus or Suetonius.  This gives the author the opportunity to create figures who have a life of their own, but who do not have three archaeological or literary footnotes attached to back up every little detail of their lives.   The plot is well-constructed (though not too difficult to solve) and involves a serial killer on the loose in the local streets of the Aventine.  Flavia uses her skills and intuition and the fact that she is a woman to gain access to the female witnesses and victims to help the professional investigators, some of whom are blundering males.  This book is the first in a new series (already there are two more titles) which can be recommended to students and young people who would like to enter the ancient world imaginatively, and to engage with life in Rome from ground level, and not only from the elite world of the surviving literature.  Such engagement can only be positive and appealing to young people’s love of entering a different world through the written word.  Flavia Albia’s world has the advantage of being a real, historical one rather than a fantasy. 

John Bulwer