Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 | c.80p | Bought copy | Buy the ebook
Years ago, Larius, nephew of Marcus Didius Falco, the most famous of Rome’s private investigators, ran off to set up shop as a fresco painter in Pompeii, located in the Bay of Neapolis where many of Rome’s rich and powerful have their holiday homes, all with walls in need of painting, especially since that dreadful earthquake a double of decades ago. There’s more than enough work to keep Larius busy. And to keep his mind off his troubled marriage. His wife now lives with their children in Herculaneum, although he’s so pleased that his daughter is currently keeping him company in Pompeii. Women aren’t supposed to have careers but she is a dab hand with a paintbrush. Larius shares his room with Nonius whose mind is on far murkier subjects than art – unless it’s a work of art he can steal and sell. Nonius is the type of rogue who thrives on disaster – he’s in the right place then.
In Vesuvius by Night, a novella (of about 80 pages), Lindsey Davis lets us know what happened to Larius after he left Rome. As the year is AD 79 and the setting is Pompeii and Herculaneum, it’s no spoiler to reveal that a volcanic eruption of catastrophic proportions might be involved. And so we’re given one interpretation of events as experienced by Larius and his family and by Nonius.
The story isn’t really long enough to immerse us fully in events and also we’re kept detached from characters by the third-person narrative. Nevertheless, this is a gripping account of a truly terrifying disaster. And what makes it particularly painful to read at times is that Lindsey Davis draws on the evidence of archaeological remains – much of which is actually human – to put flesh on the bones of people whose final positions are known from their plaster casts and skeletons. People are included here who actually lived and who died during these awful moments of hell on earth. I found it impossible not to be moved.
These people that we meet are for me the more significant aspects of Vesuvius by Night and outdo the stories of Larius and Nonius. Maybe that’s because fiction can’t compete with the reality of what actually happened when the evidence of it is now so familiar and evocative. There’s also something about the story of Nonius, that I can’t mention as it would be a spoiler, that caused me pain.
Lindsey Davis knows her history and archaeology – this novella is packed full of the kind of details of which I can’t get enough and she uses them to great effect. Therefore, if you focus on the setting, the building of the tension, the power of our hindsight, the devastation of the eruptions, then you will be drawn right back to this terrifying time, so vividly described by one of our finest writers of historical fiction.