Lindsey Davis first novel was published in 1989, after a historical romance she’d written was rejected. The research she’d done for “The Course of Honour,” the (then) unpublished romance set in the court of Vespasian played on her mind, resulted in her creation of Marcus Didius Falco, informer-at-large, and gave Davis a career and a string of Novels that combined crime, mystery, romance and great amounts of humour and which culminated with Nemesis (2010).
At the time, Davis made no suggestion that Falco was to be retired, but, in hindsight the signs were all there: The book (and particularly its denouement) was one of the darkest in the Falco cannon.
After a standalone novel (“Master and God”), Davis segued her crime series into the Flavia Alba novels. Set a decade after the end of Nemesis, we were introduced to the grown up, widowed single-minded and, in her own way, very British adopted daughter of Falco and Helena.
The character, who narrates in first person, is basically Lindsey Davis, to a certain extent. Her no-nonsense approach to life and to work comes sparklingly to life in a female character.
And so to “Deadly Election.”
I try to avoid, in reviews, giving too much detail on plot. The point of reading a book is, surely, to uncover the story as one progresses, but suffice it to say that there are two strands which (obviously) start separately, but very quickly begin to pull together. The story takes place during the canvassing period of a largely pointless (from the point of democracy, if not from the perspective of the greedy candidates) election, the winner of which will, ultimately be chosen by Domitian.
In fact, the plot here is almost incidental. This, I would suggest, is a character novel. Yes, there is crime (at least two murders, some possible domestic abuse, and a city of corrupt officials), and the sense of paranoia is as real as anything Tom Rob Smith conjured up in his novels of Stalinist Russia.
But more importantly, in this novel, there is romance. It’s a love story, basically. Or, to be more precise, without giving away too much plot, it’s several love stories, all of which have different views of Love (as a redeemer, as a force for good and as something which, when it goes bad becomes the most dangerous emotion on earth). And it’s wonderfully told.
What’s not so wonderful is Davis’ choice of character names. By her own admission, there are too many Julias, too many Calistii, and at times the reading becomes more of a hand exercise as one constantly flicks back and forth from the list of characters at the front to the text in a desperate attempt to figure out which one we’re now talking about.
It’s, possibly a fault of this reader rather than of the writing, as Davis is keeping very much in the period by using the cognomen where appropriate, and so this criticism is a small and somewhat moot one.
The humour here is darker, a little more cynical than in previous Albia books, though there is an absolutely hysterical slapstick scene involving a tussle over a huge wooden chest, a bunch of hysterical Romans, and an angry dog, and the foreshadowing for this scene was evident in the preceding short (“The spook who spoke again” 2015).
And the knowledge is here too. One of the great things about a Lindsey Davis novel is the way in which she uses her research. Ever since “The Course of Honour” birthed “The Silver Pigs” the novels have been based on detailed research, and the readers have been provided – almost without their realising it – with more knowledge of the Roman sewer system, the aftermath of the Boudiccan rebellion, the world of Ancient Banking and publishing that they’d get at an OU course on Ancient History – and here, the titbits about Roman elections under the Caesars, is somewhat front loaded, but still enjoyable.
One of the joys of a Series – whether Maupin’s Tales of the City or the Matt Scudder novels of Lawrence Block – is the development of the ancilliary characters. Often the principals can become locked in aspic – having created them, sold them to the audience, married them up (or divorced / widowed them off)- it can become difficult for a writer to make any major changes to their circumstances, lest they lose the audience. One wonders if this was the situation Davis found herself in with Falco, but here, with Flavia Alba, each of the (to date) three novels has seen her relationship with the wonderfully named Manlius Faustus develop apace.
And – even better – it’s given us some wonderful new side characters to fall in love with. I’m particularly fond of Dromo, Faustus’ permanently unhappy slave, as well as Laia Gratiana and Tullius Icillius, both of whom, one suspects, will reappear sooner rather than later, and neither of whose appearance will be good news for our heroine…
All told, however, this novel is the progression of the love story between Albia and Titus, and I, for one, can’t wait to see where the story goes next.
Recommended for anyone who likes: Steven Saylor, David Wishart, “British” crime.