I swear I’ve read some of these before, but they’re the type of books that are made of the same mould. Marcus Didius Falco is a “private informer” in the first-century Roman empire. Recently back from a stint in Britain on the emperor’s business, Falco finds himself in jail for crossing the emperor’s chief spy. Thanks to his mother and his girlfriend, he gets his freedom—and a new apartment—and immediately sets about acquiring a new case. He has to shadow and investigate a gold-digger, Severina Zotica, who might also be a black widow.
Lindsey Davis’ characters are flip, and none is more flip than Falco himself. Not even a rat-infested prison can get this guy down. Brutal enforcers, bullies, and threats? Falco laughs in their faces. A slim volume and short chapters add to the sense that this is a light read. As far as mysteries go, Venus in Copper comes down decidedly in the “fun” category.
Also, the mystery is a sideline to the book’s chief strength. I like mysteries—they were my first genre love, even prior to science fiction. However, I find that mysteries are at their best when they are intensely interested in exploring the fallibility of the human condition that leads people to commit murder (or any other crime). Davis does this only in the most shallow ways, examining who stands to benefit from Hortensius Novus’ murder without really digging into the psychology behind it. Her characters, because of their flip and foppish behaviours, don’t have the depth required to make them into compelling heroes or villains.
It’s a good thing, then, that Venus in Copper has more going for it than its murder mystery. Rather, it’s the book’s setting, Davis’ mastery of milieu, that makes it so enjoyable. Davis does an excellent job of depicting how similar life in ancient Rome was to contemporary Western living. There were divisions based on class, wealth, and lineage. There were letting agents and landlords and tenants. There were big dinner parties and concerns about making good impressions on one’s in-laws. Davis manages to impress us with the efficiency and complexity of Roman society, despite its primitive technology compared to us—and she does this without being pompous or overbearing about it. Rather than heap majestic descriptions of architecture or politics on us, she delivers bite-sized explanations, narrated by Falco, of everything we need to know. It’s very cool.
There is nothing here that makes Venus in Copper stand out as an amazing mystery or an amazing novel. But it combines my interest in ancient Rome with my love of mystery, and in so doing earns a lot of credibility with me right away. Davis doesn’t disappoint, and while it might not be as psychologically thrilling as I would like, it’s still entertaining and worthwhile. I’m not sure going to make an effort to read the entire series in order, but I’ll definitely pick up any of the other books if I happen to encounter them. (In fact, I have book one as well … I just didn’t realize this was book two when I started reading it.)