Books five through seven in the Marcus Didius Falco series, by Lindsey Davis, continue to captivate my attention just as much as the previous four did. Once again, Lindsey Davis uses each novel to focus on a particular aspect of Roman society, providing a humorous narrator, a clever whodunit, and an unconventional love story to tie it all together.
In Poseidon’s Gold, Marcus is forced to deal with the artistic mess that his “war hero” brother Festus left behind at his death. Unbeknownst to his family, Festus had been using his time in Judea to run several merchant ventures; but one of the ships disappeared with its cargo, and now the investors want the Didius family to give them their money back. Fraudulent sculptures run amok, Marcus must confront his anger at the father who abandoned him, and Helena discovers that Marcus’s relationship with his brother’s girlfriend is a little more complicated than she would like. Lindsey Davis sheds a spotlight on the place of Greek sculpture in the Roman world and the derivative nature of Roman art.
In Last Act in Palmyra, Marcus undertakes an Imperial assignment to the wilds of Syria with orders to reports back on the political climate there. While touring the desert towns with Helena, Marcus discovers the murdered body of a member of an acting troupe. Determined to bring the killer to justice, Marcus takes the dead man’s job of adapting and updating old Greek plays for modern day (A.D. 72) performances), and takes the opportunity of sizing up all the actors’ motives for murder along the way. The book highlights the geography of the Middle East as the group travels through the ten towns of Decapolis. Lindsey Davis also subtly educates her audience on the difference between the old Greek plays and the “New” Comedy. Marcus and the readers share an inside joke as he pens his own theatrical contribution, The Spook Who Spoke, the plot of which seems eerily similar to Shakespeare’s immortal work Hamlet.
In Time to Depart, Marcus must assist his longtime friend Petronius in ridding the city of Rome of some of its organized crime. Balbinus Pius, the Al Capone of the A. D. 70’s has just been sentenced to death, and in accordance with the old Roman custom, given time to depart the empire if he wishes to avoid his execution (since living outside the empire was, in the opinion of the old Roman statesmen, an even worse fate than death). With Balbinus Pius gone, a new wave of crime riddles the city, and it is up to Marcus and the vigiles (Roman policemen) to discover the name of the new crime boss in town. On the home front, Helena discovers that she is expecting a child, and Marcus must deal with the unpleasant task of breaking the news to her senatorial family. Time to Depart is mobster noir at its finest; it just happens to be set in ancient Rome , not 1920s Chicago.