Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (5 April) | 387p | Review copy | Buy the book
When Laia Gratiana, the ex-wife of her new husband, turns up on the doorstep with a mystery for Flavia Albia to solve, Albia isn’t too sure that she wants to get involved. Laia Gratiana is, after all, odious. But Albia can tell that her husband Faustus’s curiosity has been tickled and it is a very tragic case. The very young Clodia Volumnia has been found dead in her room in the house of her parents. She was their only daughter (their son is serving in the army) and her death has ripped this family apart. Her mother has left the house to stay with her own mother, leaving her husband and his mother to it. Their future together is at an end. It is rumoured that Clodia was in love and that she died by swallowing a love potion that she was given by the mysterious, enigmatic, and perhaps rather dangerous, Pandora.
And then Faustus, a man who has never been the same since he was struck by lightning on their wedding day, disappears. There is nothing for it. Albia must distract herself from her worry in the best way she can – she must solve the mystery of Clodia’s death and uncover the truth about Pandora, a woman who seems to have the fashionable world of Rome’s Quirinal district in her thrall.
Pandora’s Boy is the sixth novel in Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series and in my opinion it’s certainly one of the best. There’s something very comforting about being taken back into this world, so lovingly and meticulously painted by Lindsey Davis, who knows Rome of the 1st century AD inside out. Falco, Albia’s much loved father (as if anyone needs reminding about the Marcus Didius Falco books), has a little bit more of a presence in this novel, albeit in the wings, and I really enjoyed this connection that Albia has to the past, the little mentions about her wonderful mother Helena, her references to her father and his friends.
In Pandora’s Boy we’re taken to a new area of Rome, the Quirinal, and it is wonderfully evoked – its bars, its homes, beauty parlours, bath houses, restaurants, taste in food and religion, and so on. It is a place of leisure and pleasure but it is not necessarily as it appears. There are gangs in control here, just as there are across the rest of Rome, and it doesn’t pay to look too closely below the surface. Lindsey Davis looks particularly at the lives of the young – teenagers for want of a better term for Roman youths. The lives of young girls and boys of a certain class were mapped out for them, and for girls an early marriage was likely, and so it’s not surprising that they might want to rebel. I loved how this is done.
As always in these novels there are some very funny touches, and a lot of the humour in this novel is to do with the particularly well-favoured Greek god of lettuce. But there is plenty more here to laugh about while at the same time feeling the poignancy and tragedy of the mystery’s focus – poor Clodia – as well as another death in the novel which I found really upsetting. This clash of light and dark is really well done in Pandora’s Boy. Another aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed were its little details about Roman life, in this case especially food.
I love the relationship between Albia and her husband Faustus. I was worried about the aftermath of the lightning strike a novel or two ago and rather wished that it hadn’t have happened but finally there is light at the end of the tunnel. Albia is drawn so beautifully. She feels so real, despite being such a mix of modern and ancient. I found Pandora’s Boy to be completely engrossing and a joy from start to finish.