Nemesis: (Falco 20) Paperback – 3 Feb 2011
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Think ‘Ancient Roman detective series’, and you have several choices. But despite the American Stephen Saylor’s always reliable Gordianus the Finder books, many readers would vote for the splendid Falco books by the British writer Lindsey Davis. With her various outings for her canny and tenacious Roman sleuth, Davis has created a sequence of books that have immense vitality to match their spot-on historical detail. Recently, Davis has written in different areas from that of her customary historical patch, but Falco aficionados will be pleased to see his creator once chronicling his prowlings around the Domus Aurea. In the latest book, Nemesis, it is the summer of 77AD, and Marcus Didius Falco is finding that his troubles are ganging up on him. To distract himself from his recent bereavement, he plunges into a new assignment – a couple who provided statues for his father have vanished under puzzling circumstances. A clue might be found in the couple’s dispute with a malign group of freedmen, the Claudii, thuggish types who threaten the neighbourhood from their Pontine Marshes lair. Then a gruesomely mutilated body is found near Rome, and this mystery is also on the agenda for Falco. As often before, he is to find (via his investigations) that the smell of corruption can be detected even in the highest echelons.
Falco is characterised in Nemesis with all the usual gusto, and, as ever, Davis is adept at convincing us that her hero’s anachronistically modern sensibility sits persuasively in ancient Rome. And the experience of living in that world is captured with great imagination. --Barry Forshaw --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
"Davis is a prolific and popular writer … Her research has been assiduous and detailed, her commitment to the subject is impressive, and the background detail is often eye-opening" (Hilary Mantel Observer)
"One of the best of the current writers in this field" (Donna Leon The Times)
"Surely the best historical detective in the business" (Mike Ripley Daily Telegraph)
"The whole thing is splendid. It has everything: mystery, pace wit, fascinating scholarship … she brings imperial Rome to life" (Ellis Peters)
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Maybe Davis has come full circle. The series started with the removal of an embarrasment to Vespasian and threat to the Camillii maybe it's finished that way with a threat removed and a potential scandal averted. Who knows, maybe Davis has a special 'imperial' job waiting for Falco to complete his path into the establishment he so hates? Hence how he survives Titus and Domitian to write his memoirs in old age? I hate to mention the future because Davis is notorious for avoiding potential plotlines for her own reasons and would hate to think I may have stifled future books through speculation.
Keep writing Lindsey but lighten up, Domitian is years away.
27/7/10 - Spoilers ahead beware.
After reading a few of the other reviews that have been published since I wrote this one I thought it might be a good idea to update this one, to make a little clearer my comments and concerns, if you haven't read the book yet there are a few spoilers as I'll be talking about specific plot areas.
I read a lot of historical detective fiction. And having read the Falco novels from the start of the series it seemed to offer something slightly different from others of a similar time: i.e. Ancient Rome, that was slightly fresher and more believable. Also as another reviewer has written, it isn't necessary to have read all the books in the series in sequence to get something from them.
I never regard myself as an afficianado of a subject but I do understand the workings of ancient Rome having written a thesis on tax farming during Vespasians time. Yes it was a violent time. The majority of the thugs in the Empire (as in the republic) were in the senate (and like all politicians the majority were self serving money grabbing individuals) and if you had money you could quite literally get away with murder.
As in all time frames, the civil service is a law unto itself and permanently involved in petty squabbles with each other trying to stiff the competition, or at least make them look like fools. I personally have never been under the Hollywood illusion that this was all gleaming white toga's, full set's of teeth and everybody behaving in an impeccably civilised manner.
To prepare myself for this new book I had re-read (obviously got too much time on my hands) all the previous novels. That Falco has got a dark side has been alluded to in the books - I mean lets be honest in 'Silver Pigs' he was sticking the rotting corpse of Helena's uncle into the sewers, so his service to the Vespasian and what he is prepared to do to survive has never been in doubt. Nor has the violence inherent in Rome ever been in doubt given the number of times that Falco and Petronius have been involved in fights, or the removal of characters 'Time to Depart' being a case in point. However, I felt that the torture sequence went too far and I agree that Helena leaving him that both these elements just didn't ring true. The disposal of Anacrites I was comfortable with given that he was begining to threaten immediate members of Falco's family and was becoming soething of a loose cannon.
But..... With Geminus's death who is going to be the comic foil for Falco? Back to Falco's aging mum? Where's the next Didius boy coming from? His nephew looked like he was being set up to fill the place left by Geminus, but is his character heavyweight enough? Who will now fill the role of palace antagonist to Falco now he has lost (disposed of) Anacrites, Laeta? Unless Falco takes on the role of chief spy I can't see enough scope for a role for Laeta beyond the one he's already played.
My only other comment is that with Anacrites gone there is going to, or at least should be, one hell of an investigation into his disappearance. Anacrites has, sorry I suppose that should be; had, one dedicated operative in the field (Perilla) and I wouldn't like to be on the wrong side of her. There is known antipathy between Falco and Anacrites so when the chief spy disappears off the face of the planet.....
That said I will still buy Falco novels because I like Davis's inventive style of writing and have affection for the character she's created. The only reason why it got 4 stars instead of 5 were my concerns over the torture scene and the brief estrangement. I didn't feel that they contributed to either the development of characters or the plotline.
But a good read, lacking the predictability of previous books and you feel MDF has finally grown fully into his head of family role, rather than joking about it.
As a newcomer to Falco I've been fortunate enough to be able to sit and read the whole lot in one go, and now as I return from ancient Rome to the modern day I feel a little lost. I really do hope there will be more Falco books in the future, but if they don't happen this would be as good a finale as any.
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.
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