REVIEW of A Dying Light in Corduba, Three Hands in the Fountain, and Two for the Lions, by Lindsey Davis

How many volumes can I cover in one review article? That is a question of prime importance when you’re as behind as I am on writing book reviews. For the past several weeks, all my writing time has been eaten up by Road from the West, my novel in progress. But now that the rough draft is done and in the hands of my beta readers, I can afford a little time to chronicle my other bookish pursuits.

Lindsey Davis is still holding a virtual monopoly on my reading time. I tried cracking the covers of some other books–I truly did!–but I can’t help comparing every character to Marcus Didius Falco or Helena Justina. And frankly, there’s a lot of historical fiction authors who are just plain inferior when placed side by side with the incomparable Lindsey Davis.

A Dying Light in Corduba saw our hero, Marcus Didius Falco, set off on a mission to Spain with a very pregnant Helena Justina in tow. Racketeers are forming a cartel to control the export and prices of olive oil.  With a commodity that important to Roman society (think how important electric lighting is to us today!), the stakes are high and men are ready to kill for control. Marcus finds a close-knit and close-lipped society of provincials in Baetica, Spain. Everyone knows something about the incipient cartel, but no one wants to peach on their neighbors.  The plot thickens when Marcus discovers that a second spy has been sent to shadow his own mission–but which dancer is she? And is she friend or foe?

The convoluted banquet scene at the beginning of A Dying Light in Corduba made it one of my least favorite in the Falco canon, but the pace picked up and the story clarified itself by the end. And honestly, how could  you skip any one of these novels without missing out on major events in the main characters’ lives. Can Marcus crack the case before Helena Justina’s water breaks, or will he be stuck delivering the baby himself in the wilds of Hispania?

In Three Hands in the Fountain, Marcus returns to Rome to find out that his longtime friend Petronius Longus has been thrown out of his home–his affair with Balbina Milvia (daughter of the mob boss our boys tracked down in Time to Depart) has become public knowledge and Arria Silvia can endure the humiliation no longer. As painful as this domestic situation is, there are even more horrific doings afoot in the capital of the world. Human body parts–hands, feet, heads–have been showing up in the water supply all around the city, and the mutilated torsos that belong to these appendages are drifting down the Tiber. These “festival fancies”, as Marcus’ crass brother-in-law Lollius terms them, only show up during and around the time of the games (spectacles of gladiator fights and chariot racing that occur approximately three times a year). As he investigates, Marcus discovers that these festival fancies have been appearing for years. He is dealing with a maniacal serial killer, one who preys on pretty young women in public places. When Claudia Rufina, the Baetican heiress betrothed to Helena Justina’s brother Aelianus, vanishes, the quest for the killer becomes personal. Can Marcus find the killer before he does away with Claudia?

In Three Hands in the Fountain, Lindsey Davis provides a brilliant description of the Roman water supply, the interconnectedness of the aqueducts, and their sources up in the hills outside the city. She also hits just the right note in describing the Roman enthusiasm for sport. Marcus standing up in the chariot arena screaming for the Blues (while Helena Justina rolls her eyes and adjusts his seat cushion), is the perfect parallel to the modern football enthusiast and his longsuffering wife. This book–with its serial killer suspense–was one of the most exciting Falco novels in the whole set. Hard to put down, indeed.

Two for the Lions sees Marcus partnering up with his old nemesis Anacrites as Census fraud investigators. Anacrites (who had tried to arrange for our hero’s death in Last Act in Palmyra) attracted the sympathy of Falco’s ma when he received a severe knock on the head in A Dying Light in Corduba. Much to Falco’s chagrin, the Chief Spy now boards at his mother’s house and considers himself part of the Didius family. The money-grubbing Emperor Vespasian hires the two men to investigate the estates of those who claimed a suspiciously low income during the Census. Vespasian means to have every last denarius due him, and if Marcus and Anacrites can prove tax fraud, they will get a large cut of the profits.

Dovetailing nicely with the previous book, the investigation focuses on the sporting world and, specifically, the purveyors of men and animals. The new amphitheater Vespasian is constructing (i.e. the Coliseum) has produced great tension between rival purveyors. Who will get the contract to supply the gladiators and wild beasts for the huge arena? When a man-eating lion meets with a mysterious accident, Falco decides to investigate the death. His inquiries leads him as far afield as Carthage and onto the sand of the arena where no man is safe.

Two for the Lions is an engaging story, particularly the subplot following Helena’s brother Justinus and the bride he stole from his brother in the previous book. The deserts of North Africa have proved a very unromantic location to elope to. Does Claudia Rufina still have any affection for her new husband, and did Justinus ever have anything else in mind besides her large fortune?

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