Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date – 5 April 2018
Ancient Rome’s premier female detective returns in the latest Flavia Albia mystery from veteran historical crime author Lindsey Davis.
Rome, 89 AD. Flavia Albia, the daughter of the legendary investigator Falco, is now a proficient private investigator and informant in her own right. When the ex-wife of her husband, Tiberius, brings a case of family drama to her, Flavia is tempted to refuse, but when Tiberius disappears she needs a distraction.
The case revolves around a teenaged girl found dead in the prosperous Quirinal Hill district of Rome. The girl, Clodia, was the apparent victim of a poisoned love potion, and her parents and grandparents are blaming each other for her death. What begins as a simple investigation quickly becomes complicated when the witch accused of supplying the potion turns out to be the sister of the city’s biggest crime boss. No-one is talking, and everyone in the Quirinal Hill has a secret.
Flavia is forced to seek the truth from a variety of people, including warring grannies, concerned parents, criminal lawyers, secretive slaves, a lettuce salesman with an interesting religious statue and, worst of all, the overprivileged offspring of Rome’s elite. However, as Flavia’s investigation continues and a friend of hers dies, it soon becomes apparent that a vicious gang war is imminent. Can Flavia solve the crime without getting caught in the crossfire, especially when she has a terrible history with one of the gangs?
Pandora’s Boy is the sixth book in the Flavia Albia series, which acts as a direct sequel series to Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco series. Davis is one of the most prolific authors of historical whodunits and has a particular focus on novels set in ancient Rome. For example, her Marcus Didius Falco series contains 20 books, and she has produced some stand-alone books set in the same period.
Like the previous books in the Flavia Albia series, Pandora’s Boy takes a contemporary look at Roman culture and lifestyles. The inhabitants of Davis’ books act in a very modern way despite their ancient surroundings, and this results in a very humorous interpretation of the ancient Roman characters. Davis also uses this book to parody a specific group in modern society: the millennials. Throughout the story, Flavia is forced to follow, interview and generally endure the victim’s friends, who are the offspring of the city’s rich and powerful. These friends are exceedingly selfish, have sordid love lives and get into all sorts of mischief. In other words, they act in a very similar way to how modern day millennials are often perceived and portrayed. Their appearance is quite jarring in the ancient Roman setting and leads to a lot of the books humour. In all, it is a fun, quirky addition, and an amusing examination of modern society through very ancient eyes.
The core of the book is the death of a young woman and its investigation by the main character. This is a well-done mystery that takes many twists and turns to keep the attention of the reader. Flavia’s investigation is done through interviews, trickery, observations and undercover work, and, like many other parts of the book, is infused with Davis’ trademark humour. The investigation is wrapped up in a final scene that is a throwback to classic murder mystery dénouements. All the interested parties are gathered together in one place and the investigator reveals their conclusions, eventually leading to their solution to the crime. Davis provides a perfect parody of this, infused with her own unique touch. As a result, there are several jokes about this well-used literary device, including discussions around the necessary prep work and tricks to keep the gathered parties’ concentration of the speaker that will greatly amuse many murder mystery buffs.
One of the more diverting and memorable aspects of the Flavia Albia series is Davis’ tendency to include big action sequences that devolve into near absurdity and provide some of the best laughs in the entire book. For example, in Davis’ previous book, The Third Nero, the climactic scene was a battle in the heart of Rome that featured, among other things, a war elephant, Parthian cataphracts and one of the most improbable chase sequences in all of fiction. While nothing will quite top this, Davis has striven to include one such scene in Pandora’s Boy, featuring an interrupted séance, an all-out brawl between legionnaires and Vigiles at a collapsing temple, all of which serves as a backdrop to a fight between two warring grannies. This is an extremely entertaining scene and definitely a highlight to watch out for.
Another notable feature of the books in the Falco universe is the deeper examination of the Roman criminal justice system. The investigators in these books often deal with the Vigiles and the Aediles, the ancient Roman equivalent of the police and magistrates, many of whom turn into key characters. This is a unique feature, as most Roman historical fiction books neglect to focus on these institutions, only mentioning them if in the context of political gain. Pandora’s Boy includes a detailed look at the Vigiles who patrol the Quirinal Hill district and their investigation into the death and other serious crimes. Loaded up with a suitable modern twist, the inclusion of these characters is an intriguing addition that highlights an often-neglected side of ancient Roman life.
Pandora’s Boy is a wonderful addition to one of the best ancient crime series currently on the market. Davis once again creates a fantastic murder mystery and infuses it with outrageous humour and a modernistic take on ancient Roman life. This is an exceedingly fun and deeply absorbing novel that will appeal to a very wide audience of readers.