Originally Published 1990
Marcus Didius Falco #2
Preceded by The Silver Pigs
Followed by Venus in Copper
It’s the first century A.D. and Marcus Didius Falco, Ancient Rome’s favorite son and sometime palace spy, has just been dealt a lousy blow from the gods: The beautiful, high-born Helena Justina has left him in the dust. So when the Emperor Vespasian calls upon him to investigate an act of treason, Falco is more than ready for a distraction. Disguised as an idle vacationer in the company of his best friend Petronius, Falco travels from the Isle of Capreae to Neapolis and all the way to the great city of Pompeii…where a whole new series of Herculean events—involving yet another conspiracy, and a fateful meeting with his beloved Helena—are about to erupt….
Several months ago I wrote about the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, which I noted I had been trying to read for about fifteen years. I came to the conclusion that I rather liked it and I had been looking forward to seeing more of the character but unfortunately this book reminded me why I struggled to finish the first book for so long.
The novel picks up shortly after the first book left off with the Informer now on Caesar’s staff. He is frustrated with the work assignments he is being given, most of which involve tidying up loose ends from his previous case. The task he is set at the beginning of the novel is to find and bribe or threaten the living conspirators to ensure that they fall in line with the new regime.
That is, unfortunately, about as much as I can say about the plot because what you have in store for yourself is a long, winding novel with new goals emerging in a hydra-like fashion as he completes each task he has set for himself. It gives the plot a sort of rambling, unfocused feeling and I think if you are reading this for the mission you will probably feel frustrated. Davis’ focus, it turns out, is actually on another aspect of Falco’s life.
Now I am not necessarily opposed to an entire novel detailing the status of Falco’s relationship with Helena Justina. She was probably my favorite part of the first novel and I enjoy the interactions between the two and the disconnect we see between Falco’s opinion of his knowledge of women and the actuality where he is clearly quite clueless. The problem from my perspective comes from the lack of surprise in the way that plot unfolds.
Davis is clearly heading somewhere from the moment they first encounter each other again but she plays her hand too clearly, showing exactly where their story is headed in a somewhat testy exchange between the pair. You might argue that this is intended to build suspense except that is not how the rest of their interactions unfold – my belief is that this was meant to be a subtle hint that is anything but and the ending seems to play out as though it is intended to surprise the reader.
This would not be an issue if the case Falco is working on had a stronger sense of urgency or mystery about it but actually for the first half of the book everything feels very straightforward. It can sometimes be interesting to follow how Falco will deal with some of the discontents and to share in his cynical observations about the political elites but there is little here to surprise or shock.
This does change when Davis pulls off a very effective twist in the second half of the novel, giving Falco more immediate stakes in the case and also heightening the danger he faces. I will admit to having been completely surprised by this moment in the novel and it does give the plot a much-needed boost but by that point I was already feeling quite disengaged from the story and that a lot of my time had been wasted with unnecessary details of Falco’s journey and with little purpose.
Which brings me back to the problem that this story is more focused on Falco’s relationship drama than establishing anything approaching a mystery. The reader cannot really predict that twist or many of the developments that follow and by the time it happens it feels like we have strayed a long way from the original mission Falco has been given by Vespasian. Even if I were to focus on appreciating it as a romance rather than as a mystery, the book feels slow and filled with unnecessary padding.
In short, this was a big disappointment given my high expectations for the novel. The characters are still enjoyable but the story here could have been told in half the page count and I do not think much would have been lost. As invested as I am in Falco and Helena’s relationship, the weaknesses in the mystery and adventure elements undermine the novel and make it feel somewhat directionless. My hope is that the subsequent volumes get the series back on track and I will at least be curious to see what becomes of them after the events of this book.