Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (4 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 89 and the Emperor Domitian is on his way back to Rome and the city is thrown into chaos! Domitian has negotiated two enemies into defeat and he intends to enter the city in triumph, actually with a Double Triumph. Never mind that he hasn’t captured any barbarians to parade behind his gilded chariot, to garotte ceremoniously. There are plenty of actors who can dress up for the day. It’s more than one’s life is worth to mutter against the ridiculousness. Best just to get on with it. But then a man is thrown off Rome’s infamous Tarpeian Rock and unfortunately it turns out that he’s the official in charge of transportation for the Triumph. Nothing must be allowed to spoil the Emperor’s big day and so Rome’s aediles are given the job of investigating. Luckily, one of them, Faustus, is married to Flavia Albia, arguably Rome’s best private investigator, now that her father Marcus Didius Falco has retired.
A Capitol Death is the seventh novel to feature Flavia Albia, Falco’s adopted daughter from Britannia. I always look forward to this series. There’s something comforting about returning to Lindsey Davis’s Rome. The historical detail is meticulous and the writing is always witty and entertaining as Albia undertakes one of her exhausting investigations. There’s a lot of walking to do as Albia has to tread from one side of Rome to another, time after time, on the trail of a killer. This time there is the added fun of an excursion from Rome to the coast to look at the unpleasantly smelly business of making purple dye, another Triumph essential.
The mystery is, as usual, full of red herrings and surprises, as Albia enters the world of Triumph preparation, where everybody knows everyone else. It turns out that not a soul liked the murdered man and so the number of suspects increases with every interview Albia conducts. While the mystery is rather slow moving and, in the second half of the book, a little confusing, at least to this reader, this is more than compensated for by the absolutely fascinating depiction of the preparation for a Triumph.
In historical fiction, we’re used to seeing Triumphs depicted from the point of view of those being celebrated. But here we go backstage and behind the scenes, into the enormous buildings where floats are prepared, costumes are made, and actors are made ready. We’re also shown the religious aspect of the Triumph with plenty of time spent in Rome’s most sacred spaces – the Temples of Jupiter and Juno. Once more, it’s the men who look after these places that get the attention. My favourite is Feliculus, the old man who looks after the sacred geese, birds that fans of Falco will be very familiar with.
Flavia Albia is a wonderful heroine and narrator. Her background – orphaned and penniless in Britannia – makes her sympathetic to others in a similar situation. Strays are always gathered. It also makes her feel like an outsider and an observer. Perhaps this is one reason why she’s such a good investigator. Her relationship with her husband Faustus is so poignant and tender, if hidden a little behind the banter. Faustus is recovering from his wedding day lightning strike, although I am glad to report that he’s much better now (thank heavens). Falco and Helena continue to get the odd mention, which makes me very happy indeed.
The star of A Capitol Death is undoubtedly Rome itself. The years are bridged and we’re placed right into the heart of 1st-century Imperial Rome. I love the way in which familiar ruins are rebuilt and streets are filled with life and business. There is also something rather intriguingly modern about Albia. This continues to be such an excellent series and each one is such a highlight of my reading year.