Marcus Didius Falco has finally made it through the wilderness (though he’s no virgin) and back to the cramped, smelly, and familiar streets of Rome. After an extended foray into Germania, Falco and his live-in aristocratic girlfriend Helena Justina return to find that Falco’s modest apartment has been ransacked, and of course, that’s only the beginning.
In this fifth book of the series, we get an in-depth look at Falco’s life, and more interestingly, his family history. When his mother asks him to investigate slanderous accusations made against his dead brother Festus, Falco is forced to agree. Though his brother apparently died a hero’s death, he was always mixed up in some sort of business dealings that may or may not have been above board. While investigating, Falco comes across the man who is determined to sully Festus’ good name, and in true Falco style, things take a decided turn for the worst when that man turns up dead. Falco is of course the prime suspect, and now he must find the true murderer in time to save his own neck.
Along the way, he’s forced to come face to face with the father who abandoned him and other varied family members. This is the best look we’ve had at where Falco comes from, and although I didn’t much care for the angsty father-son scenes, it made this the best book in the series so far. The first four books were good, but I often found myself in sections where I had to force myself to keep reading, but by the end I was left wanting more. This book had me from the beginning and it just got better as the plot progressed.
My favourite part of this novel was the nature of the supposed crime itself. The plot revolves around a lost piece of art, and as we move through the world of Roman business and art sales, we get a real feel for how white collar crime would have worked in Ancient Rome. I have a soft spot for any white collar crime in storytelling as it often involves a more intelligent breed of criminal, and there are some serious skills involved. Art forgery is great in any plot in my opinion, and though the story included a number of different elements including the import/export business, I was impressed by the whole thing. I often think of white collar crime in a really modern way, with sophisticated technology and a lot of computer software hard at work, so it was refreshing to set it set in the past.
The relationship between Falco and Helena Justina continues, and with it the problem of needing 400,000 sesterces to buy a place in the middle class so that a proper marriage can take place. While Helena seems content for things to continue on as they are despite her parent’s objections, Falco remains consumed by the problem. He’s presented with an opportunity to make a substantial sum of money through the course of the investigation, but it just felt like more of the same old. Without including any big spoilers, I will say that I was pleased that the ending of this book changes things in a big way, so hopefully the next book offers a new element to the development of this relationship.
That being said, the conclusion of this book changes things for Falco in a number of big ways, and it will be interesting to see him operate after the disillusionment sets in. Book 6, Last Act in Palmyra is on its way, and I can’t wait to get started. Let’s take a moment here to appreciate the joy of reading an older series of books where all of the titles are already available and we aren’t left waiting for distant publication dates to arrive.