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I always enjoy reading Lindsey Davis's "Falco" novels. They take place in historical Rome during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.), a period of consolidation because Vespasian was the surviving claimant to the imperial throne in the year following the death of Nero, called the Year of the Four Emperors. Rome would have been a bustling city at this time, as we can see from the fact that at the time of his death, Vespasian had started building the truly amazing Colosseum. Book publishing and banking flourished at this time, and they assume an important role in ODE TO A BANKER, the thirteenth of the first-person-told Falco series.
Falco himself is not a stationary character, but has evolved with the series. His occupation as an "informer" is close to that of a modern private eye, and he frequently works for Vespasion himself, although not in the present novel. He has married the lovely patrician Helena Justina, daughter of a senator, and has gradually improved his social rank, finally becoming an "eques," a member of the class immediately below senators. His family is doing well, more or less, including his mother, divorced father, and sisters, and we see their scattered appearances throughout the book. Other permanent characters in the series include his close friend, Petronius, now second-in-command of a cohort of "vigiles," city firemen with police functions, and the disliked and untrustworthy Anacrites, the "chief spy" of Vespasian, who inveigles his way into the good graces of Falco's mother and sister.
In this latest book, Falco tries out his talents as a public reciting poet. He wants to get some of his works published, and a well known publisher, Chrysippus, gives him encouragement, but Chrysippus is murdered before any commitments are made. Petronius, acting commander of the vigiles, hires Falco to investigate the murder, letting him use some vigiles for assistance.
There are a good number of suspects, although one is eliminated when he is found hanged on a bridge. The others are various writers and Chrysippus's family members and associates. The investigation shows that Chrysippus had an interlocking connection with both the publishing and banking world, and we learn a good bit about how each was conducted in Roman times, with surprising similarities to modern times. Falco takes on the suspects in Charlie Chan fashion, individual interrogations leading up to one of those classic "I suppose you're all wondering why I called you together" meetings for the denouement.
Before we get to the end, though, we are treated to Falco's sometimes astute observations and his ofttimes wisecracking wit, although I think we're getting less wisecracking in succeeding stories. There are scenes of suspense such as when an "enforcer" for the bankers, who is more of a freight car than a human, tries to strangle Petronius, who can hardly lay a finger on him even with Falco's help.
The author is well versed in ancient Rome and Roman paraphernalia. I find some of the allusions most interesting, such as the names. Nothokleptes, a banker, in Greek means an illegitimate thief or thieving bastard, and Aulus, a doorkeeper, comes from the Greek for courtyard or hall. There's a brief mention of Martial, the greatest Roman epigrammatist, whose manuscript has a notation by Chrysippus "Who is this -- No -- crap!" Lindsey's similes sometimes paint a picture instantly conjuring up accurate perceptions, such as "A heavy man, with jowls that were designed for pegging a napkin under his chin."
All in all, the kind of book that will appeal to historical mystery fans. As with all the Falcos, it's quite satisfying. It reads fast and interestingly, and is an especially valued kind of book to take with you on a holiday or a business trip. I would make just one suggestion for improvement to the author. Ms. Lindsey performs an excellent service for readers by presenting at the beginning of the book a list of characters with a brief mention of who they are. Some other writers give at the end of a book, especially in historical novels, an explanation of appropriate terms. I would like to see both.
I'm thinking especially of John Dickson Carr's FIRE, BURN! In which he gives some of his sources at the end for terms used in early 19th century London that seem unusual or almost too modern, such as the phrase "Tell that to the marines," and he shows the fame of one real-life character named Manton by telling how in a Disraeli novel the name is used synonymously with a gun, as in "The hero does not use a gun; he 'cultivates a Manton.'"
In the Falco series, the author shows amazing similarities between ancient Rome and modern times. Falco suspects that mosquitoes carry diseases. A child uses a "wheeled walking-frame." There is mention of "class movements." I've noted above how Roman publishing and banking practices seem to be so modern. These concepts are undoubtedly based on Lindsey's considerable research. I think it would both add to the weight of the story and satisfy the curiosity of a good number of readers if some short notes at the end could show the origin of our knowledge of these interesting background items.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, January 2003
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