It is fascinating to me how Lindsey Davis has created the character of Marcus Didius Falco in such a way that she can use him as a window into whatever facet of Roman society she desires. Venus in Copper and The Iron Hand of Mars are books three and four in the Marcus Didius Falco series, and the missions Falco undertakes in them are about as different from each other as Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel.
In Venus in Copper, Marcus branches out on his own as a private investigator, taking a hiatus from his palace work for Vespasian. He is hired by two wealthy Roman matrons, former slaves who, along with their husbands, are now extremely wealthy property owners. The ladies are concerned for the safety of their husbands’ colleague, Novus, who is about to enter into marriage with Severina Zotica, a professional bride. Severina has had three husbands before, all of whom died suspiciously leaving her with a great deal of money on her hands. Will Novus meet the same fate?
This book showcases a very interesting segment of Roman society that I had never thought about before, “freedmen” who after being released from slavery go on to become fabulously wealthy. It also reveals the slummy side of Rome, showing landlords out for gain at the expense of their tenants. The scene where Marcus’ tenement building collapses and he thinks that Helena Justina lies dead inside is brilliantly written.
In The Iron Hand of Mars, Marcus is once again in Vespasian’s employ. At the instigation of Titus, who is a little too interested in Marcus’ senatorial girlfriend Helena Justina, Marcus is sent on a far off mission to the wilds of Germany. He must discover the fate of a missing legate, stop a priestess from inciting the tribes to war, and put the tribal chieftain under house arrest. Helena’s honorable (and lovable) brother Justinus joins Marcus on his mission and saves Marcus’ bacon when the natives grow restless.
Lindsey Davis packs a tremendous amount of Roman history into The Iron Hand of Mars, bringing the reader up to speed with all of Rome’s dealings with Germany and the various uprisings that have happened there in the last hundred years. Oftentimes, authors will end up using contrived conversations to dump historical information on the reader, but even the “educational” conversations in this book felt perfectly natural and stayed interesting.
On to book five…where will Marcus Didius Falco go next?