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4.0 out of 5 stars Falco 20: Murder in the Marshes, 9 July 2010
This review is from: Nemesis: (Falco 20) (Hardcover)
Number twenty in this series of excellent detective stories set in Vespasian's Roman Empire and apparently the last in which the informer Marcus Didius Falco is the main character. This story begins with a terrible family tragedy for Falco.

Nemesis was the Roman Goddess of retributive justice: one of the characters in this story says that "when a man receives more from Fortune than he should, Nemesis will come along and right the balance."

The book contains Lindsey Davis's usual mix of ironic humour about human relationships, nuggets of information about the society and politics of first century Rome, and an intriguing detective story. But although the style and content is fairly similar to the first nineteen books in the series, the tone of this latest volume is much darker.

The full Falco series, in chronological order, consists at the moment of:

1) The Silver Pigs
2) Shadows in Bronze
3) Venus in Copper
4) The Iron Hand of Mars
5) Poseidon's Gold
6) Last Act in Palmyra
7) Time to Depart
8) A Dying Light in Corduba
9) Three Hands in the Fountain
10) Two for the Lions
11) One Virgin Too Many
12) Ode to a Banker
13) A Body in the Bath house
14) The Jupiter Myth
15) The Accusers
16) Scandal taks a Holiday
17) See Delphi and Die
18) Saturnalia
19) Alexandria
20) Nemesis

And then the start of a "Next generation" follow on:

21) The Ides of April (Falco: The New Generation)

This book is set in Summer AD77, during the period when the Flavian dynasty, e.g. Emperor Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, were building the huge stadium known to historians as the Flavian Amphitheatre and to most of the rest of us as the Coliseum.

Picking up the pieces after the double tragedy which strikes him on the first day of the story, Marcus Didius Falco learns that his father Geminus had won a contract from the Flavians to provide a large number of statues for the alcoves in the Coliseum. The supplier, Modestus, from whom Geminus had bought some of these could not be paid because he, his wife, and the slaves in his household have all disappeared. So Falco travels to Modestus's home at Antium, near the notoriously unhealthy Pontine Marshes, to investigate.

He learns Modestus had last been seen when heading into the Pontine Marshes to talk to an infamous local family called the Claudii about a boundary dispute. And his wife had last been seen when she went to find why Modestus had not returned. Local people, when persuaded with difficulty to talk, are convinced that the Claudii have murdered Modestus, his wife, and many other people, but that nothing will be done because the Claudii have friends at the imperial court.

Falco and his friend Petro start to investigate, and it soon becomes clear that there is indeed a serial killer or killers at work in the Pontine Marshes. Is it the Claudii, and if so what leverage do they have at the Imperial court? Will Falco and Petro have to take the law into their own hands - or could this case be their own nemesis?

As all the previous reviewers have agreed, this story is quite a bit darker in tone than any of the others. That isn't because the humour of the previous stories is missing: it isn't. Nor is it because innocent people get murdered, although they do: that was common to the earlier books. Partly it is because the book dwells a bit more on the consequences for the victims. One passage in the book was depressingly similar to some of the columns police doctor Theodore Dalrymple used to write in the Spectator, describing conversations with women who won't leave or bring charges against the abusive partners who keep putting them in hospital.

But the main reason this story is so dark lies the impact of the evil they are trying to eradicate on Falco and Petro themselves.

One bit of series trivia: most of the novels in this series read as if they were being told in a chatty style shortly after the events described. However, "Nemesis" is the second Falco book (the other being "Ode to a Banker") which contains a few oblique references to events after the conclusion of the book and which infers that the story of this book is being told or written quite a few years later.

I initially tried this series because I had enjoyed the "Cadfael" mediaeval detective stories by Ellis Peters. Where Cadfael is excellent, Falco is brilliant. Ellis Peters herself (or to use her real name, Edith Pargeter) said of the early books of the series, 'Lindsey Davis continues her exploration of Vespasian's Rome and Marcus Didius Falco's Italy with the same wit and gusto that made "The Silver Pigs" such a dazzling debut and her rueful, self-deprecating hero so irresistibly likeable.'

Funny, exciting, and based on a painstaking effort to re-create the world of the early Roman empire between 70 and 77 AD.

After this book Lyndsey Davis either felt that she had done enough with the original characters, or recognised that they would have to keep their heads down during the reign of mass murderer Domitian in case he remembered that they had once been his enemies (and knew things damaging to him.) So when she returned to this series in "The Ides of April" which is set a dozen years later in AD 89, she jumped to the next generation of the family for her narrator and protagonist.

It isn't absolutely essential to read these stories in sequence, as the mysteries Falco is trying to solve are all self-contained stories and each book can stand on its own. Having said that, there is some ongoing development of characters and relationships and I think reading them in the right order does improve the experience.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Jul 2010 07:08:56 BDT
S. U. Larsen says:
Falco would have had a hard time during the reign of Domitian, and I think a progressive pessimism will take over the closer we get to those unhappy years. He would have been busy lying low and trying to survive the best he could.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jul 2010 09:56:19 BDT
Last edited by the author on 25 Aug 2010 14:00:08 BDT
There is a lot in what you say.

Until the comment in "Ode to a Banker" which explains that book is being narrated 20 years later - e.g. in about 94 AD, after Domitian's reign - I had assumed that Falco would have been one of the very first of the thousands of people Domitian killed when he came to the throne.

Domitian started by settling scores before he moved on to murdering people on a whim or for fun, and Falco is an old enemy. Although we now know Falco does survives Domitian, he would certainly have to be careful.

But we shouldn't take this argument too far as it affects books set in Vespasian's last years. Nobody knew in 77AD that Titus would die relatively young and without issue, leaving Domitian to take the throne.
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