Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 89 and Domitian is ensconced on Rome’s imperial throne. His position is far from secure, not least because he’s such a horrible human being. In fact, he’s so unpopular that people have been getting rather nostalgic for their poor murdered emperor Nero, so much so that there have been at least three Neros who have recently popped up across the empire, eager to prove that they are in fact not dead. Not all of them can even speak Latin, but that doesn’t deter grumbling Roman officials, stationed far from home, from grabbing the opportunity to adopt a potentially resurrected emperor for their own gains. Much to the relief of his senators, Domitian is away from Rome at the moment, protecting the empire’s borders but, unfortunately, this leaves Rome itself wide open to conspiracy. The latest Nero contender has been brought to Rome for questioning and this has caught everyone’s interest.
The palace is nervous. It’s well aware of a plot embedded in Rome itself but it’s sensitive. Two of Rome’s nobles have fallen foul of Domitian, suspected of involvement in a Nero plot, but nothing has been proven. It is hoped that their widows might hold the answer but how to get it out of them? And then there’s the visiting VIP Parthians and their exotic household and harem. A woman’s sensitivity is needed. Flavia Albia will have to do.
Flavia could do with the distraction. She might have got married only the day before but the fact that her new husband was struck by lightning during their wedding procession and barely survived has meant her marriage has not got off to the best of starts. Worried about her husband but not wanting to sit by his sickbed all day, Flavia reluctantly accepts the case and finds herself as something she never wanted to be – but her father Marcus Didius Falco would know all about – an imperial spy.
The Third Nero is the fifth novel in Lindsey Davis’s wonderful Flavia Albia Roman detective series. It follows on almost immediately from The Graveyard of the Hesperides but you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy any of these books. You might not know all the ins and outs of Flavia’s family and romantic life but that’s about it. But if you’re as big a fan of the Falco books as I am, then it’s great to pick up the references to familiar people, places and dogs.
This is a little different from the books that have gone before. The Third Nero is far less of a murder mystery than it is a Roman spy thriller. Instead of working for private clients, Flavia is now in the unfortunate position of working for a government (or palace) that she doesn’t like and it takes her painfully close to some of Falco’s worst memories of being an imperial spy. She’s aware of this and she’s uncomfortable with it. This is a world of dungeons, torturers and secret agents. The latter are not easy to spot.
As usual, Lindsey Davis is expert in bringing to life the everyday details of ancient Rome. This book, like the others, is full of historical and social background – we learn about politics, government, the place of women and foreigners, diplomats, marriage, and much, much more, all set within the marvellously visualised city of Rome. However, I did find that at times this rich background was a little at the expense of the story, which is not one of the strongest of the series. I like the usual whodunnit format of these books and I missed that here. My biggest issue with The Third Nero, though, is poor Tiberius’s lightning strike. This felt like a convenient way to keep him out of the way, allowing his wife to do her detecting, something which may have been extremely irregular during this period.
Nevertheless, it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Flavia Albia. I love her wit and spark. Lindsey Davis writes her so well. She’s immensely likeable and, despite seeming modern in some ways, is also such a part of Rome and the time in which she lives. I always look forward to the latest novel by Lindsey Davis, a novelist I have read and loved for almost thirty years. I’ve read every single one and I can’t wait for the next!