Top critical review
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on 1 May 2011
Family has always been a big problem in Lindsay Davis' books -- family will get you into trouble, but you help them even if they make your skin crawl. And in Davis' twentieth ancient Roman murder-mystery, family trouble catapults our favorite Roman informer into even more trouble in the less pleasant, healthy parts of Rome -- and the big problem is the sudden "dark" actions he takes. See below for spoileriffic details.
Death has visited Falco's family: his son dies just after birth, and on the same day he learns that his father has just died. Unsurprisingly, his dad left Falco the bulk of his considerable estate and his sleazy business -- and an ex-lover, Thalia, who claims to be pregnant with his baby (which, if it's male, will halve his inheritance). To make matters worse, Helena's brother returns home, newly married to a grasping Athenian woman.
It makes most families look positively peaceful, doesn't it? And that's before the MURDERS start.
While dealing with dear dad's estate, Falco discovers that the Pontine Marshes are not just yucky, but deadly -- citizens are vanishing and being found dead in Rome. Apparently it's connected to the Claudii, a strange family said to have imperial protection. As more bodies pop up in Rome, Falco and Petronius must unearth a nasty collection of facts -- which may be connected to someone they know.
Lindsey Davis has a rare writing knack -- she can write historical mysteries without spending the whole book constantly going, "Look at all my cool research! Check out all the uninteresting details I dug up to give the book an authentic feel!" as many such writers do. It's full of the flavour of ancient Rome -- the flies, the squalor, the sweat, and the faint scent of corruption when a great civilization goes downhill.
And as you'd expect from a book named after the goddess of divine retribution, there's a dark edge to this story -- sudden deaths, inheritance, plague-swamps and a mysterious half-hidden family. While Davis still weaves in some funny moments ("If this is the same ox, he's a sex maniac. I'm not driving him!"), "Nemesis" is undoubtedly a darker, grimmer story than the ones before it.
The big problem is the characterization. For the first two-thirds of the book, Davis smoothly explores Falco and Helena's shared grief, gentle humor and their fierce mutual love for their family -- especially since Anacrites is sniffing around Albia, and Albia is having a meltdown because of her crush getting married.
Then, without warning, Falco tortures a man, and it puts a nasty strain on his marriage. It feels like Davis made a stab at making things "darker" -- but it doesn't feel consistent for a man who always had such principles, and he doesn't seem in any way bothered by it. Fortunately, that part ends soon and everything shifts back to normal.
Winged "Nemesis" attacks the people around Falco in Lindsey Davis' twentieth novel. It's well-written, nicely dark and witty, but the "torture" part temporarily derails both Falco and the story.