I have long been a fan of Lindsey Davis’s detective novels set in the Rome of Vespasian and featuring that loveable rogue Didius Falco. They may have become rather predictable over the years but nevertheless, there is something about the wryly ironic first person narrative voice that catches me every time and I look forward to each new novel with happy anticipation. However, the author’s one-off novels have been another matter. The first, The Course of Honour, set in the same period but telling the story of Vespasian’s mistress, was a decent enough read but lacked the engaging humour of the detective series, and the more recent Rebels and Traitors, set in the English Civil War, just didn’t get off the ground as far as I was concerned. I gave up a hundred pages in, still searching for anything resembling a storyline. So, I came to Master and God, billed with the by-line They tried to write him out of history, with a certain amount of trepidation.
The novel purports to be about Vespasian’s second son, the Emperor Domitian, who ruled the Roman Empire for fifteen years, acceding to the title after the death of his elder brother, Titus. I say purports because while I did in the end come to the conclusion that the book was indeed about this paranoid despot, an Emperor who demanded that he be addressed by the title ‘God and Master’, on the surface it is apparently the love story of Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a member of the Praetorian Guard and the feisty Flavia Lucilla, hairdresser to the nobility. And if as you get to know them you think you’ve met these two before there is certainly more than a little of Falco and Helena in their make-up and their relationship. There is even a dog.
When we first meet Gaius he is actually a member of the Vigiles, that body of Roman officials which stood somewhere between a police force and a fire service, but an accidental meeting with Domitian at the height of an historically accurate infernoc brings him to that young man’s notice and as a consequence Gaius finds himself ‘promoted’ to the Emperor’s personal bodyguard. We follow the soldier’s progress as he makes his way through the back alleys of Rome, the forests of eastern Europe and the corridors of Imperial palaces, discovering more about Domitian along the way, but really focussing on what is happening to Gaius and wondering all the time if he and Flavia are ever going to do anything more productive than fight with each other. We are a bit like the dog (Terror to the outside world, Baby if you are part of the family) feeling that we ‘own’ both of them and desperate for them to acknowledge their feelings and finally give everyone a bit of peace around the house.
It was this focus that at first made me question whether the book’s title and its marketing was correct, but as the story progresses through to the last years of Domitian’s rule it becomes clear that to have actually told the story with him in the narrative foreground would have been unbearable. His acts of cruelty are difficult to come to terms with at a remove, to have had them centre stage would have made the book unreadable. Instead what we have is a novel that reveals him through the impact he had on those around him, chronicling the daily fear with which they lived and the desperate measures to which they are finally driven. Our trepidation for the fate of the characters to whom we have become attached echoes that which must have been felt by the populous in First Century Rome.
And yet this is not a harrowing book to read, far from it and that is because in this novel Davis has wisely provided a narrative voice with the same quirky sense of humour we are used to from Falco. In fact, given that Falco has pretentions to being a writer and that he must live through this period, I did at times wonder if it was he who was telling the story. It is a third person narrative, but there is nothing neutral or self-effacing about the narrator, who is most definitely a personality in his/her own right. Here we have an early description of the work of an elite Roman hairdresser.
Lachne’s new style had stupendous lift. It consisted of a comical crescent of false or real hair, covered all over with a crush of pincurls. It lofted above the wearer’s face from ear to ear, like a curly tiara. Of course the look required support, either a wire framework, which was lighter, or padding, which was more comfortable but heavier – though women found it altered how they held their heads and gave them a sense of dignity. Their own hair, which was redundant to the effect, would be plaited and coiled on the back of their heads. False curls allowed the whole front structure to be removed, which saved having to sleep upright.
The rows of frontal curls were a challenge for sculptors. Apart from the technical difficulty, it is not easy to ply a chisel while trying not to grin.
That is so Falco. You are not sure whether the last few words of the first paragraph are meant to be taken seriously or not and then you get the punch of the tagged on comment. I could hear Falco saying it as I read.
So, in the end, I think this novel is not only a very good read but also successful in what it sets out to do. Staying with a period Davis clearly knows extremely well is a sensible decision and the wry humour that she executes so adroitly distances the reader just sufficiently from the horrors that they are forced to confront as the story reaches its climax. I hope we haven’t lost Falco for good but if any future stand-alones are as good as this I shall look forward to them with relish.