Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)
Series: Flavia Albia – Book 10
Length: 398 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Buckle up for an intense, captivating and exceedingly memorable historical murder mystery as bestselling author Lindsey Davis unleashes the 10th entry in the deeply clever and compelling Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertaking.
It’s that awesome time when I get to gush about the newest entry in Davis’s excellent, long-running Flavia Albia series, which has been a major fixture in my reading schedule for the last several years. The sequel series to her iconic Marcus Didius Falco novels, the Flavia Albia novels follow the daughter of Davis’s original protagonist as she solves unusual murders across ancient Rome. Thanks to the series’ typical great combination of intriguing characters, complex mysteries, excellent historical elements and great humour, I always have an amazing time reading these novels, which usually get very high ratings from me. Some of the more intriguing Flavia Albia novels in recent years include The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, The Grove of the Caesars (one of my favourite books of 2020) and A Comedy of Terrors. Due to the quality and entertainment capability of this series, I eagerly keep an eye out for Davis’ new book each year and I was exceedingly chuffed when I got a copy of Davis’ latest novel, Desperate Undertaking.
Rome, 89 AD. The year is coming towards an end and the city is ready to enter a sleepy holiday period. Unfortunately, murderers are notoriously bad at taking breaks, and Flavia Albia, paid informer, dogged investigator and daughter of notorious busybody Marcus Didius Falco, is about to get dropped into the most disturbing case of her life. With her parents away on holiday and her impromptu family preparing to settle in for the quiet period, Albia receives a job request she cannot refuse. An aged actor, part of a troupe her parents travelled with in their youth, has been killed, horribly crucified in a public place. Starting her investigation, Albia and her husband, Tiberius, are shocked to discover this is not the only murder confronting them as they suddenly discover the first victim’s widow was also murdered in terrible circumstances. Her last words to Albia: “The undertaker did it…”.
Determined to find the person responsible for the horrific murders of her parent’s friends, Albia begins her investigation, diving into Rome’s theatre scene. But when another actor associated with the troupe is killed in a cruelly inventive way, Albia begins to realise that these are no ordinary murders. A twisted and determined serial killer is on the loose, bearing a terrible grudge against the actors and anyone associated with them. Worse, their exceedingly public killings all bear striking similarities to some of the most brutal moments in classic plays, causing their victims to suffer in horrific ways.
With the bodies piling up and the city in an uproar, Albia must solve the most unusual and deadly case of her career before more of her parents’ friends end up dead. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she begins to realise that these murders bear a strong connection to one of her father’s past cases. Worst, Albia soon realises that her connection to the currently absent Falco has made herself and everyone she loves a target of a demented killer determined to get revenge.
Davis does it again with Desperate Undertaking, producing a wildly entertaining and exceedingly clever historical murder mystery that I had a brilliant time reading. Perfectly bringing together a disturbing mystery with an excellent historical setting, some great characters and the author’s trademark humour, Desperate Undertakings is an outstanding read and it ended up being yet another Flavia Albia book that gets a full five-star rating from me.
I must admit that I have sometimes found Davis to be a bit of an inconsistent writer; while most of her novels are extremely good, a few of them do not quite measure up in terms of substance or entertainment. However, Desperate Undertakings is easily one of the better books in the Flavia Albia series as Davis pulled together an exceptional and dark murder mystery narrative that will leave a memorable impression on the reader. For this latest story, Davis drops a lot of the family/household storylines that have been a significant, if slightly distracting, feature of the previous novels, and instead focuses on an intense and elaborate murder mystery that effortlessly grabbed my attention and ensured I was extremely hooked on this fantastic novel. The book starts off extremely strong, firstly with a foreboding introductory short chapter, and then with a great series of compelling early chapters that drag the protagonist into the investigation. These early chapters feature two dramatic (literally) and elaborate murders that really stand out due to their brutal and distinctive nature (the second one is particularly gruesome and over-the-top), as well as their connections to some of Davis’s iconic protagonists. As such, the reader becomes really invested in the case early on, and you soon get thrust into an elaborate in clever murder inquiry storyline. Davis sets up this investigation really well, and there are a series of great leads, potential suspects and unique theories that pan out as the novel proceeds in an excellent way. While the novel slowed down slightly after the initial murders, the next series of killings picks the pace right up again, which the story maintains for the rest of the book. I really enjoyed how the entire mystery came together, and there are some really clever twists and turns here, with seemingly minor characters or story elements coming back in some big ways later in the book. Everything leads up to a big and impressive conclusion and readers will be left rocked by the elaborate and powerful nature of the plot, as well as how damn dark this novel got in places.
Desperate Undertakings is extremely well written and I loved how Davis pulled this entire novel together. Davis once again hits the perfect blend of murder mystery, historical elements and character driven story elements in this book, as the reader is engrossed in this brilliant Roman based tale. I did feel that this one was significantly darker in places than some of Davis’s previous novels, which I really liked, especially as it results in some particularly gruesome killings. The story is once again told from the perspective of central character Flavia Albia as she traverses the mean streets of Rome to find her culprit. This central focus allows for much of the books fantastic humour, as Albia’s comedic and exceedingly modern perspective of events is extremely entertaining, while also providing a Roman noir feel for the murder investigation. Like most of the books in the Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertakings can easily be read as a standalone read, with any relevant elements from the previous novel rehashed for the new reader. However, Desperate Undertakings also bears a strong connection to one of Davis’s older novels, the sixth book in the Falco series, the 1994 release Last Act in Palmyra. Multiple characters and elements from this book make an appearance here, with several of them serving big roles in this book, either as supporting characters, suspects or victims. Davis rehashes the events of this previous book extremely well, and readers who haven’t had the chance to enjoy it are still able to enjoy Desperate Undertakings without any issues, while those who have will no doubt enjoy the fun call back. I felt that these past elements were utilised extremely well, especially as these past events also impacted the present storyline. This entire novel came together brilliantly, and I was extremely enthralled by its great writing and powerful story the entire way through.
I always deeply enjoy how Davis portrays the historical elements in her novels and Desperate Undertakings was a particularly good example of this. The reader is once again treated to breathtaking depictions of ancient Rome, with everything from the chaos of the streets, the culture of the people, and the slapdash take on law enforcement used to full effect throughout the course of the plot. There are some brilliant descriptions of some of ancient Rome’s earlier sties, especially as the murders make use of some iconic locations for the sites of their crimes, and you get an excellent sense of the city thanks to Davis’s descriptive and powerful writing. However, the best part of these historical elements is the dive into the Roman theatre scene, which is a key part of the books plot. Davis provides an intriguing and entertaining look at the city’s theatre elements throughout the novel, and you soon become deeply engrossed in her entertaining portrayal of these eccentric and proud actors and entertainers.
Desperate Undertakings also takes quite an intriguing look at the various plays and performances put on during this period as the killer utilises some of Rome’s bloodiest and most elaborate plays as a basis for setting up their murders. This causes the protagonist to really dive into all the plays of the period and you get a good idea of several of the more iconic and distinctive ones, especially those that have elements of death involved. I found it really interesting to find out about this part of Roman culture, especially the deadly twists that are sometimes involved with them, and it was a great part of the plot. I also felt that Davis did a remarkable job working these historical theatre aspects into the plot of Desperate Undertakings, and it really helped to make the murder mystery stand out. I particularly enjoyed how the author broke the book down into sections, each one of them named after a play that corresponds to the murder that Flavia is about to discover. This allows for a glorious bit of foreshadowing, especially for those with an interest in classics and theatre, and it was an excellent addition to the book. I deeply appreciate how Davis utilised these historical plays as the inspiration for her murders in Desperate Undertaking and it really gave this book a very distinctive feel. Readers are warned that some of the murders are a bit graphic thanks to how they are portrayed in these plays, and you are in for some barbaric punishment as a result.
Another strong aspect of Desperate Undertakings was the excellent and compelling characters that Davis featured throughout. As usual, this great cast is headed up by the intrepid Flavia Albia, who serves as the main protagonist and point-of-view character for the book. Albia is a really entertaining protagonist, especially as Davis presents her as a cynical private investigator with very specific views of the reality of life in ancient Rome. The daughter of another cynical protagonist, Falco, Albia spends most of the book making astute and hilarious observations about the people, locations, and events around her, and much of the book’s humour results from the amusing and noticeably modern way she sees the world around her. As such, Albia really adds a lot to this intriguing story and it is always so much fun to see her waltzing around Rome solving her elaborate cases. It was particularly interesting to see her reactions to the murders that occur in Desperate Undertakings. Despite her familiarity with death and Rome’s underbelly, these killings really hit her hard due to their brutal nature and the connection that the victims have to her parents. I felt this was a really compelling and powerful change to the character, and it really helped to highlight just how dark this book got in places.
Desperate Undertaking also features a wide cast of characters, all of whom have some entertaining or intriguing moments through the book. Davis utilises a blend of established characters, new figures and even several characters who have not appeared since the Falco series. All these characters are utilised extremely well in this novel, and the author does a good job of introducing (or reintroducing) them throughout the course of the plot. As usual, this includes Albia’s husband, Tiberius, who serves as a good straight man to Albia’s eccentric antics, and helps to focus the investigation in places. Other interesting characters include a newly introduced cop who balances between competence and political expediency and serves as another excellent foil to Albia’s more unusual investigation methods. The various actors and theatre related figures are pretty entertaining, and Davis introduces some eccentric characters, many of whom serve as potential suspects or victims as you get to know them more. I also felt that Davis did a good job with the killer (or killers) featured in this book, as they have a unique motivation, and a compelling personality that is slowly uncovered throughout the course of the book. Finding out just who they are and why they are doing these dreadful killings is extremely fascinating and results in some brilliant character moments. Other supporting characters are also extremely entertaining, including a very strong butcher and two very cultured vigils, and I had a brilliant time getting to know them all.
With the extremely awesome and captivating Desperate Undertakings, the always incredible Lindsey Davis continues to reign from atop the historical murder mystery mountain. This latest Flavia Albia novel is exceedingly epic, containing a brilliant and dark investigation story that sees the series’ outstanding protagonist encounter a truly demented killer. With some fascinating and distinctive historical elements, especially those surrounding the bloody and memorable plays, Desperate Undertakings really stands out and was an amazing amount of fun to read. This was one of the better and more memorable entries in this excellent long-running series, especially with its vicious murders and great character work, and it comes extremely highly recommended.