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by Lindsey Davis
St Martin's Minotaur, May 2009
338 pages
ISBN: 0312379013

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lindsey Davis has written a good number of her novels on ancient Rome featuring the picaresque Marcus Didius Falco as a croak-and-dagger detective. I've read and enjoyed many of them, but think that the latest, ALEXANDRIA, is the best yet. Falco solves special crimes for the not-especially-appreciative Emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.), ultimate successor to Nero. Having married a senator's daughter, Falco has gained some respectability and two children, but lost none of his penchant for sticking his nose in situations where he has not been invited.

On vacation with his family in the magnificent city of Alexandria, Egypt, playground of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he meets the head of the world's largest and most famous library, just hours before he mysteriously dies. Naturally Falco has to investigate. The authorities are somewhat awed by his imperial connection, so he ipso facto becomes in charge of the case.

Davis has a knack for imparting unobtrusive knowledge so that you will read about Falco, but you'll remember a lot about the fascinating features of Alexandria, such as its lighthouse (pharos in Greek), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (unfortunately destroyed in an earthquake; you can see a reasonable replica in Alexandria, VA, where the design of the George Washington Masonic Temple was fashioned after the Pharos). Davis also tells us about the Museion, the library, another "daughter" library, the zoo, and other famous sights, and alludes to the 350-year old glass-enclosed tomb of Alexander the Great (now disappeared).

Some of the suspects include the overall director of the Museion, and the heads of various institutions that are a part of the latter. There are other killings, including a vicious murder of a young scholar partly eaten by a huge alligator from the zoo. There are at least two vividly described hairbreadth episodes where Falco just barely escapes death.

As an aside we see an interesting aspect of the author's experience in living what she writes when Falso takes his wife 100 miles south to see another of the ancient wonders, the pyramids. He, like his creator, doesn't get to see much because of a blinding sandstorm, and in Davis's dedication to a travel companion, she gives her "apologies for the sandstorm."

The mystery and its solution are satisfying, and the characterization (including the growth of Falco and the promotion of his wife Helena into more prominence than in earlier novels) is way above average. For me, the fact that Alexandria itself is another of the main characters makes the story that much more delicious to read. When you finish reading I suspect you'll tend to agree with me and lament (in the words of the poet of Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy): "Like one for long prepared say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing."

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, April 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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