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by Lindsey Davis
Ballantine, July 1993
366 pages
ISBN: 0345374266

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I read Lindsey Davis's SHADOWS IN BRONZE around the same time I read Steven Saylor's ARMS OF NEMESIS, two mystery novels that have the similarity of being set in ancient Rome. Saylor writes of the last decades of the Roman Republic, just before Julius Caesar (who died in 44 BC) effectively started the Roman Empire. Davis writes about the early Empire, specifically the time of the Emperor Vespasian, who showed endurance as the fourth in the Year of the Four Emperors who followed Nero in rapid succession (69 AD; the other three were the late Galba, the late Otho, and the late Vitellius).

Saylor writes a more serious novel, no cutesies, double entendres, or puns, and he's very good (see my review of ARMS OF NEMESIS). He mixes his fiction with more of a real-life background, while Davis takes a lighter approach. However, although I think fans of Janet Evanovich might appreciate the humor in Davis, it is not so much slapstick as picaresque. Both Saylor and Davis have excellent knowledge of ancient Roman history, and she is especially notable for the minutiae of everyday life in Rome that give her story a fine feeling of place.

Her "detective" is called an "informer." Although I've read several of her books, I don't recall this word/occupation ever being defined. Perhaps the original Latin word might be "delator" or "sycophanta," which would show that her informer was a real, not fictitious, occupation. Davis's informer is Marcus Didius Falco, a member of a large family of quirky, streetwise Romans. Although these people play prominent roles in other Falco mysteries, they are not much present in this one (which is fine with me).

Falco is employed by no less than the Emperor Vespasian. As might be imagined, with all those short-lived predecessors, Vespasian is ever alert for plots, and he uses people such as Falco to keep him informed and carry out sub rosa missions. However, Davis's interpretation of Vespasian has him as rather chintzy, and Falco is never rolling in pecunia. In SHADOWS IN BRONZE Falco has the mission of disposing of a body of an anti-Vespasian plotter and helping in the liquidation of the wealthy man's confiscated estate.

There are other plotters and Falco finds himself traveling all over southern Italy trying to identify them. He frequently runs into Helena, the high-born widow of the man whose body he disposed of, and he loses his heart to her while she vacillates over her feelings toward him. The ambivalence of influential men in southern Italy toward Vespasian indicates that the Emperor was not being unduly suspicious about their loyalty, and Falco finds himself dealing with people who may turn out to be friend, foe, or even both. But the really dangerous one, the one who has been countering his moves ever since his little disposal problem in Rome, is the mother of all surprises, but to say more would give away too much.

Davis's books have earned high and well deserved praise from numerous reviewers. Those mystery fans not yet acquainted with her work are missing a treat in historical story telling, but it's never too late. I didn't discover Davis and Falco until she had already had written a half dozen or so books, and now I'm enjoying catching up (my wife is, too).

Note: This book was first published in the UK in 1990. The cover shown is of the currently in print edition.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, October 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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