I used to be a huge fan of Lindsay Davis’s Falco stories – a model of how to write historical crime fiction. Falco eventually grew a little too middle aged to keep on with his criminal investigations and the torch was passed to his daughter, Albia.
The Ides of April is the first of the Flavia Albia books. It was published in 2013 but I have only just got around to reading it. It’s certainly encouraged me to read more in the future.
The Ides of April is clearly written as the first in a series. Although there are frequent references to her father and you will probably enjoy the book more if you have read Falco in the past, it definitely starts from scratch. We have not only a new detective (though still working from Falco’s old office) but a new Emperor. Vespasian and Titus (both of whom featured a lot in the Falco series) are dead and Domitian is running the country. Davis is clearly not a fan of Domitian and this means there is a dark political background to the story.
The change in the politics of Rome and all the new characters that come with a new series means that much of the early part of the book is given over to establishing the characters and the background, which makes it a little slow, especially for people who already know some of it from the overlap with Falco. Eventually, though, the story – Albia’s attempts to track down a serial killer who is murdering apparently at random – gets properly under way and gallops along very satisfactorily.
There are quite a lot of characters and all are clearly drawn and easy to keep track of when they are around, but I did find myself getting lost from time to time when they were being referred to while they were not present. There are lots of nephews and nieces and lovers and ex-wives and freed slaves who are essentially part of these rambling extended families and all have two names and may be referred to by either. At one point there is a discussion of how somebody had called on someone’s father about someone’s uncle (I’m being vague as to details) and I had to read it several times to work out who was talking about whom. Eventually, though, even with characters who take on hidden identities, we work out who is who and the plot is clear. Perhaps a little too clear: once all the red herrings are discarded the big silver herring is a bit obvious. In fairness all the people involved do accept that they have been remarkably obtuse and the story is much more than just a murder mystery. The sense of time and place is (as I’d expect after the Falco series) brilliant and there are some interesting characters I expect to meet again in future books.
Is it as good as Falco at his best? Of course not: Falco at his best was already established with his family and his friends and we all knew the Rome he lived in by then. Albia is starting over and it will take a while for her to be as sure-footed as her father, but I think she’ll get there. Definitely a series worth sticking with.