Some years ago, we took a short drive to to see an exhibition, Art in Roman Life: Villa to Grave, at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Best known for a superb Grant Wood collection and a collection of prints by Mauricio Lasansky, it was a little skimpy on the Roman side. But what really charmed me was finding Lindsey Davis’s witty Marcus Didius Falco mysteries in the art museum shop.
I am a great fan of Lindsey Davis, who, in my opinion, is the best of several wise-cracking writers who set their mysteries in ancient Rome. (I also recommend Stephen Saylor and David Wishart.) Davis’s writing is charming and witty, the plots seamless, and I love her new Flavia Albia series. Albia is the adoptive daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, an auctioneer and former private investigator (and the star of Davis’s first mystery series), and his equally smart wife, Helena Justina. Now that her parents are older, Albia has taken over the “informer” business. Times are dangerous: she is living in the age of Domitian.
Sometimes Albia is in the mood for a case, sometimes not. Without looking for trouble, she stumbles upon a case in the Grove of the Caesars. While supervising her husband’s employees as they prepare a building site, the workers make an unlooked-for discovery: they dig up some musty, damaged scrolls, written by philosophers she has ever heard of. Albia wonders if they are originals or forgeries, and intends to find out; either way they could be valuable. (Romans love a good forgery scandal!) But then a horrendous second crime is unearthed; the body of a woman is found, one of several women murdered in the Grove of the Caesars over a period of years.
Davis manages to keep the dialogue light, even when the most ghastly crimes are committed. And Albia has a good working relationship with this particular branch of the police, who seem to adopt her as a mascot-cum-second-in-command. In a common mystery trope, Albia’s investigations of the scrolls in bookshops and the murders in the Grove of the Caesars turn out to be related.
But the novel opens with Albia’s witty, exasperated. dissertation on gardens.
I want to make a complaint. Poets are wrong about gardens. Your average poet, scratching away to impress his peers in the Writers’ Guild at their dusty haunt on the Aventine, the Temple of Minerva, will portray a garden as a metaphor for productive peace and quiet. In such secluded places, poets will say, men who own multiple estates engage in happy contemplation of weighty intellectual matters, while acquiring a glow of health. These landowners, idiot patrons of ridiculous authors, take pleasure from topiary cut in the shape of their own names, yet they avoid the slur of self-indulgence, simply because their box-tree autographs have roots in the earth.
You can’t get much wittier than that. And the dissertation goes on…
I also like this quote from an auctioneer trying to sell the scrolls.
“Who’s read The Oresteia? Oh, we’ve got some clever ones in! …. Aeschylus, smart fellow, was the first writer to realise that if you write a trilogy, you will sell three times as much.”
I highly recommend this amusing mystery.