Last week I asked whether or not authors of fantasy were ever successful in creating a second world with which their readers could readily identify. I could, of course, have just as easily posed a similar question in respect of crime writers. How well do we react when our favourite detective is ditched, even if only temporarily, for a newer kid on the block? I don’t know about you, but however much I appreciated Malcolm Fox, I was overjoyed when John Rebus made a welcome return and while I really enjoy Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner novels, I’ve never warmed to either of the Blackstone series. Jeffrey Deaver gets round the problem by introducing us to Kathryn Dance in the midst of the Lincoln Rhyme novels, so the two don’t seem so far apart; I don’t feel as if I’ve actually wandered into unfamiliar territory and even find myself preferring the Dance books to those set in New York. I can’t help feeling that if a writer wants to explore new territory then this is a safer approach; certainly it is the one that Lindsey Davis has taken as she chooses to refresh her crime novels set in Ancient Rome.
I have been a lover of Davis’s novels since The Silver Pigs first introduced us to that roguish but basically good egg, Marcus Didius Falco, informer to royalty and righter of innumerable wrongs in the Rome of the Emperor Vespasian. In that series, Davis clothed her ability to construct complex plots and undertake meticulous research in a narrative alive with humour and sharp one liners and I feel that I have grown up alongside Falco and his (eventual) wife Helena and both rejoiced and suffered with them through the various triumphs and disasters that have befallen their expanding family. Now, Davis has taken one member of that family, Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, and raised her to the status of central character as, some years after her father’s final outing in Nemesis, she undertakes her own investigations in a Rome that is not truly certain it is yet ready for a female informer.
Enemies at Home is the second novel in this new series and it reintroduces us to some of the characters we first met in The Ides of April, most notably the handsome and remarkably honest, local magistrate, Manlius Faustus. Faustus has been charged with finding a way of circumventing the laws of sanctuary after the slaves of a couple murdered in their beds seek asylum at the Temple of Ceres. By Roman law, all slaves who fail to save their owners’ lives under such circumstances are to be put to death and given that the local vigiles, (who have a lot to learn from Falco’s drinking pal, Petronius) have failed to catch the actual killers, they are anxious to have someone in custody to take the heat off their own backs. Faustus hires Albia to try and discover what really did happen on the evening in question and in attempting to do so Falco’s daughter takes the reader with her into the world of the Roman slave, revealing the true iniquities of a system that found nothing wrong in buying and selling humans as if they were no more than a secondhand piece of furniture.
In focusing on a system that is bound to sound abhorrent to the modern reader, Davis could fall into the trap of having her first century characters exhibit emotional reactions that would have been at odds with their positions in the world that they inhabit. However, she is far too good a writer for that. Both Faustus and Albia themselves come from families that own slaves and throughout the course of the investigation they rely on people who have no say in their own existence whatsoever to make the wheels of their lives run more smoothly. Nevertheless, neither are happy about the more extreme slave laws and in voicing that unease they open up the way for the reader to react against the practice as a whole. When the truth behind the murders is finally uncovered a twenty-first century reader cannot help but think that perhaps the unlucky couple contributed to their own demise, but Roman law will still take its pound of flesh and Albia knows that there is nothing she can do to alter that fact.
I was uncertain when this series began how I would take to a novel that had no Falco in it. I kept hoping that at some point Albia would recognise that help was needed, call into the family home and enlist her father to the cause. I can see now that if Davis had allowed that to happen it would have been a terrible mistake. Flavia Albia has to stand on her own two feet, both as an informer and as a leading character in her own right. What is more, it would have been difficult to insert Falco into the action without also bringing a greater level of humour to the narrative and that would have been completely inappropriate. While neither of the books is deadly serious we are in a very different Rome to that of the earlier novels. Vespasian is no more and the reign of his elder son, Titus, has been cut short by what may well have been unnatural causes. Now under the rule of the younger son, Domitian, Rome has become a place of fear, where anyone stepping out of line is likely to be dead by morning. Falco’s bluff bonhomie would not only be out of place in this world, it would be dangerous. Helena does well to keep him tied up in the family antiques business and Albia is safer on her own. Nevertheless, in Enemies at Home some members of the old world do make an appearance. Albia calls on her maternal uncles, Justinius and Aelianus, for legal help and just as the novel seems to be drawing to a close Helena herself arrives at an embarrassingly inopportune moment. Perhaps when we reach book three, with Albia well-established as the central character, we may find that Falco is no longer able to resist the lure of the investigative chase and turns his mind once more to issues of Roman justice.