Lindsey Davis – The Ides of April

lindseydavis-theidesofaprilFlavia Albia is the adopted daughter of a famous investigating family. In defiance of tradition, she lives alone on the colourful Aventine Hill, and battles out a solo career in a male-dominated world. As a woman and an outsider, Albia has special insight into the best, and worst, of life in ancient Rome.

A female client dies in mysterious circumstances. Albia investigates and discovers there have been many other strange deaths all over the city, yet she is warned off by the authorities. The vigils are incompetent. The local magistrate is otherwise engaged, organising the Games of Ceres, notorious for its ancient fox-burning ritual. Even Albia herself is preoccupied with a new love affair: Andronicus, an attractive archivist, offers all that a love-starved young widow can want, even though she knows better than to take him home to meet the parents…

As the festival progresses, her neighbourhood descends into mayhem and becomes the heartless killer’s territory. While Albia and her allies search for him, he stalks them through familiar byways and brings murder ever closer to home.

As has been established numerous times, I love historical crime fiction. Generally, I’ve been most at home reading historical (crime) fiction set in medieval, Renaissance and Victorian times, as those are also the periods in history I’m most familiar with. And while I’ve been branching out lately, it’s been generally into periods in between these former periods, only rarely have I strayed into the Classical age. In fact, looking at my Goodreads shelf, I can count them on one hand. The Ides of April has now made it possible to engage my other hand in tallying up the numbers. Why the emphasis on this lack of Classical historical fiction reading? Mostly because I think that it accounts for most of my problems with this first instalment in Davis’ new series. Because while I really enjoyed the setting and Albia’s voice, at times I struggled with how modern she sounded.

Let me elaborate on that last point. Albia is an independent, young woman. Already a widow at twenty-nine, she’s set up in business for herself. And what other business could she chose than that of her famous, adoptive father Marcus Didius Falco? Thus Albia is an informer, or as we would call her a private investigator. Now, I was aware that women had a much larger and freer role in Roman society than their sisters in Greece or their descendants in the Middle Ages; however, I was surprised by how independent and free Albia actually was. This is one tough cookie and she quite liberated in her views. Add to that the fact that Albia often emphasises the fact that women are never safe and always vulnerable, in a way that feels very reminiscent of the discussions of rape culture being had in the present day, and Albia feels so modern that it just feels a little off. Now there are several reasons why this might be so. The first – and honestly, most likely – reason is my ignorance of Roman society beyond that which I was taught in history and Latin class at grammar school. But while that is a likely reason, it also feels as if the author is trying to draw a comparison to modern day society and through Albia is commenting on it or perhaps just even saying the more things change, the more they stay the same. Of course there is nothing wrong with inserting social commentary into a novel, in fact I think most good art does, however in this case it impinged upon the narrative, so much so that it felt intrusive and that isn’t a good thing; it ended up pulling me out of the narrative and make me wonder about its meaning.

Modern or not, Albia’s voice is distinctive, with a sardonic outlook on life that’s lends an almost noir vibe to the story. Despite her cynical nature and hardened by a childhood on the streets of Londinium, she’s a sensitive woman, who seemingly loves with all her heart. She’s also a family woman, who enjoys spending time with her parents and most of her siblings and is close to her extended adoptive family. Time spent with her family is mostly kept off the page though and the majority of the novel is spent following Albia on the job through her corner of Rome, the Aventine. I loved the setting of the Aventine, which Davis brings to colourful life, filled with sounds, smells and even taste, in the form of the less than stellar food served at her aunt’s local restaurant. It’s through one of her cases that Albia gets enmeshed in the main mystery of the novel: who is behind the strange deaths occurring across the city?

In the course of her investigation we meet many people. Some are part of Albia’s daily life, such as her concierge Rodan, Prisca, who runs the bathhouse she frequents, and Morellus, the local vigiles investigator – the Roman equivalent of a police detective – with whom Albia has a rather ambivalent friendly working relationship, and of course her cousin Junillus at the restaurant. Some come into her life as a result of the case, such as Andronicus, an archivist who quickly becomes more than just that, and Tiberius, the undercover agent employed by the elusive aedile, Manlius Faustus, to keep be his eyes on the street and in this case to solve the murders. All of these play important roles in the story and are entertaining and well-drawn. The plot of the story is interesting and almost a classic whodunit, in the sense that the identity of the killer is easily deduced, at least I had an idea quite early on who it might be that proved to be correct, but the how and the why prove more elusive. The same can be said of the secondary mystery in the novel, where is Manlius Faustus and why won’t he see Albia? I had this figured out rather early on as well, but again the solution and the reasons for it are only revealed late in the book. This reminded me of the earliest crime mysteries I read, those of Agatha Christie and Ellis Peters.

The Ides of April certainly made me think and research the position of women in Rome a bit. Said research mostly consisted of reading Wikipedia and several blogs, seeing what we had on the topic at work, and concluding that I knew squat about the topic and I’d need fifty more hours in the day to read up on the subject. But any book that makes me want to learn more has done something right, in my opinion. Despite my problems with the book, I did enjoy it and thought the Aventine Hill was brought to life wonderfully. The Ides of April was a solid introduction to the character of Flavia Albia and I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops in the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • suecccp

    Have you already read the Falco series? If not, I would recommend them, and you might find that the modern voice is one that fits once you are introduced to Flavia’s ‘parents’. They are amongst my most favorite books.

    • No, I haven’t read any Davis before, though I had heard about the Falco series. I’m going to have to get my hands on some to meet her parents! Thanks for reading :-)