Britain–the last place on earth that Marcus Didius Falco wants to visit. But when Emperor Vespasian asks him to conduct a cost analysis of a building site on the edge of the empire, our hero can hardly refuse. A Body in the Bathhouse shows the Didius family traveling en masse to the wilds of Britain: Marcus, his helpful wife Helena Justina, and their two little girls; Justinus and Aulus, assistants and brothers-in-law to the intrepid informer; and Maia, Marcus’ sarcastic sister who needs to flee Rome to escape reprisals from the spurned Anacrites.
The palace under construction, a gift from Vespasian to the British tribal king Togidubnus, has more problems than a simple case of overspending. The head architect is unwilling to take any input from his client, valuable building materials keep disappearing from the building site, and Falco suspects that extra wages are being doled out to a phantom labor force. When the head architect winds up dead inside–you guessed it–a bathhouse, it’s up to Falco to find the perpetrator amidst myriads of men with motives.
After solving the murder and making the building site solvent, Marcus and family head off to Londinium, beginning a new book entitled The Jupiter Myth. When a character involved in the last case winds up dead in one of Londinium’s taverns, Marcus discovers that the backwater banks of the Thamesis are capable of hiding as much villainy as the lurid streets of Rome. He unearths a protection racket that has been plaguing the town for some time, cleverly marking its “protected” businesses with lightning bolts and names associated with myths about the god Jupiter.
Petronius Longus joins the Didius family in Londinium, bringing Maia’s gaggle of children. He seems to have some special knowledge of his own about the protection racket and goes undercover to track down the mobsters. When the sad news arrives that two of Petro’s daughters have been carried off by the chicken pox, Maia’s scorn for Petro melts into pity–but Falco has grave doubts whether a romance between his favorite sister and his best friend would be to anyone’s benefit.
Both of these books display impressive information about the Roman footprint in Britain, culled from archaeological evidence. A Body in the Bathhouse delves into the intricacies of Roman architecture–and the timeless graft and incompetence associated with building contractors everywhere. The Jupiter Myth paints an intriguing picture of what the ancient town of London might have looked like–as seen through the scornful eyes of a snobby city boy, born and bred in Rome.