The Graveyard of Hesperides | Lindsey Davis | 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 403p | Review copy | Buy the book
Flavia Albia, daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and private investigator in her own right, has finally decided to do what every one expects and marry Tiberius Manlius Faustus. Apparently just living together is not good enough for the relatives, Flavia and Faustus must endure the full works – sacrificial sheep, moth-eaten head dresses and the in-laws. But Flavia has other things on her mind right now. Faustus has just taken over the building business that is currently giving the Garden of the Hesperides inn a makeover. Unfortunately, the builders failed in their efforts to sneak out the human bones they found hidden under the patio. Legend tells that years ago the landlord of the time murdered one of his barmaids, Rufia. There seems little reason to believe that the bones belong to anyone but the unfortunate Rufia, until a soldier’s expert glance at the bones reveals that one of her legs came off a man. The fact that the body’s skull is missing doesn’t help, either.
Flavia and Faustus give themselves five days until their wedding day to solve the mystery of the bones in the Garden of the Hesperides. It’s a tall order because in this part of Rome, where every other building is a bar with a different type of business entirely going on upstairs, everyone has something to hide. So while Faustus does his best to oversee the construction of the inn’s new water feature, Flavia interrogates the increasingly unhappy landlord and everyone else down the street. But when the heavies turn up at one suspect’s house, leaving misery and chaos in their wake, it becomes clear that Flavia has stirred up much more than long dead bones.
The Graveyard of the Hesperides is the fourth novel in Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia detective series set during the later part of the 1st century AD (reign of Domitian). All of them work well as stand alone novels and this one is no different. The fact that Flavia is the daughter of Davis’s much loved and now retired PI Falco adds a great deal of depth and charm to the new series for those of us who have read every one of these fabulous Falco novels – it’s wonderful meeting familiar characters – but it certainly isn’t necessary to have read them or the previous Albia novels. I’d certainly recommend it, though. My reading life over the last twenty-odd years would have been much duller without Marcus Didius Falco.
I’ve enjoyed all of the Albia novels but this is without doubt my favourite. Flavia is a full developed character, confident in herself, assured and – a pleasant change in crime fiction – extremely happy in her personal life, although she does like to have the odd dig at her adoring Faustus. It’s almost as if she’s worried that she must keep her independence, that it could be too good to be true. But it isn’t. She’s her father’s daughter all right and Fasutus wouldn’t have her any other way. Flavia does have a past and it has left its scars but she looks ahead. However, there are reasons other than Flavia and Faustus for why I enjoyed this book so much. The mystery is a strong one and I enjoyed its twists and turns. But even better than that is Lindsey Davis’s portrait of Rome, arguably the most important character in the novel.
Rome comes alive here in every way. It’s a brilliant depiction and Davis’s knowledge and research shines out on every page as she takes us into the poorer streets and slums of the city. The descriptions of the bars and tenements are so well done. I loved the inns, their customers, and staff. We learn so much about daily life for those who had no kitchens of their own, no plumbing, no comfort, and so spent much of their time on the streets, in the cafes, in the baths and in the brothels. I felt completely immersed in this poorer, fascinating, smelly and dirty side of Rome. Faustus is a magistrate. His job could make life harder for these people but he’s one of the few who tries to do his best for them. This is Domitian’s Rome – it’s not going to be easy.
But Lindsey Davis also explores an even darker side of Rome and its inns – the world of prostitution and its side industries, such as abortion, protection rackets and so on. These might be humorous and witty novels but they by no means avoid the reality of life for the Roman poor. These streets and inns are full of people who could so easily be regarded as victims. Slavery is something we’re used to in Roman history and fiction but here we’re reminded of the ‘free’ girls and boys who would be trafficked illegally into the city, or refugees looking for a better life and finding much worse. It’s not an unfamiliar tale.
The Graveyard of the Hesperides is such a good book, perfectly combining the personal story of Flavia and Faustus – with all the wit that you’d expect from Lindsey Davis – with a fine mystery and a brilliant portrait of daily life in Rome, for those who abide by the rules, for those who don’t and for those who don’t have a choice or chance. This novel, my favourite so far, shows that this series has really hit its stride and more, and I look forward enormously to seeing what the future holds for Flavia Albia.