Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (1 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
The festival of Saturnalia is rapidly approaching and this year Flavia Albia and her aedile husband Tiberius know that it needs to be extra special due to the two young boys now in their care. But the best laid plans and all of that soon go awry when it becomes clear that a gang of hoodlums is messing around with Rome’s lucrative nut market. When matters turn nasty, Tiberius is forced to investigate while Albia has her own hands full with another matter. A woman has thrown her husband out and wants to know exactly what he’s been up to. It seems like such a simple case, just something to pass the time. Albia couldn’t be any more wrong. And that’s before their pet sheep (called Sheep) is stolen and its head dumped on their welcome mat. Meanwhile, Rome carries on regardless, carrying out practical jokes, decorating their houses, tolerating cheekiness from their slaves, and passing out drunk in doorways.
I have been reading Lindsey Davis’s Roman mysteries for more years than I care to mention – first the Falco books and now those that focus on Falco’s adopted daughter rescued from Britannia. In this now soundly established second series, Domitian’s Rome is brought to life due to the author’s masterful way in backing up her wonderful, engaging stories and characters with all of those fascinating historical details. Lindsey Davis knows her stuff and it enriches these novels every bit as much as her humour. A Comedy of Terrors is the ninth volume of the series (how can it be that many already?) and you can enjoy it with or without knowledge of its predecessors. If you love Marcus Didius Falco – as if anyone doesn’t – then you’ll be pleased to see that he pops in. Saturnalia is a family festival after all.
Flavia Albia, as normal, is our narrator and what a wonderfully witty and entertaining companion she is. It’s clear that sometimes what she says hides what she really feels – such as her relationship with her husband (now on the right track again after the lightning incident, I’m relieved to report), her worries for the two little boys in her care, her responsibility for her household, and her memories of her terrible former life. There is an undercurrent of darkness, should you look for it.
A Comedy of Terrors is, perhaps, a more playful read than others in the series. This might be because the author wants to cheer both herself and her readers up. It worked, at least for me. At its heart is Saturnalia, the festival that has links with Christmas. I know little bits and pieces about the festival but this fabulous novel explores it thoroughly, immersing us in its chaos and fun, while also highlighting its downsides – the streets were far from safe for women and perhaps there is a cruelty behind some of the japes. As usual in these novels, we are reminded of the place of women in this society and the complete and utter barbarity of slavery, as well as the brevity of life for many. No wonder everyone looked forward to Saturnalia and the reversal of roles, with the slave playing king.
The story is a good one, with several strands which are slowly developed. There is so much of interest happening outside the cases. Everything you wanted to know about the Roman nut business or pie making business can be found in this book. It is all pulled together satisfactorily, and rather amazingly, and I think that the last third is particularly fantastic. I felt like applauding at the end.
Lindsey Davis is so good at placing us in the streets (and high-rise tenements) of late 1st-century AD Rome. There is so much to look at. I love her characters and Flavia Albia has now established herself as a worthy successor to Falco – Falco would, no doubt, have it no other way. I look forward to this series every year and A Comedy of Terrors shows so well exactly why that is.