The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

9781529374278

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 2 April 2020)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Eight

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Get ready for an outstanding historical murder mystery as one of my favourite authors, Lindsey Davis, returns with another book in her amazing Flavia Albia series, The Grove of the Caesars.

“Don’t go to the Grove.”

Rome, 89 AD. Flavia Albia, professional informer and all-around busy body, is still adjusting to domestic life with her new husband. When he is called away for a family emergency, Flavia takes up the reins of his construction business and begins to supervise several of their projects, especially a demolition and construction job within the sprawling gardens outside the city that Caesar long ago gifted to the people of Rome.

Ignoring the subtle warnings of those men familiar with the gardens to stay away from them and their accompanying sacred grove, Flavia visits the worksite, where she finds a series of mysterious scrolls buried in a cave. Why has someone buried a mass of scrolls from obscure Greek philosophers, and what dark secrets do the scrolls hold? Before Flavia can investigate any further, a woman is brutally murdered at a party held at the grove, and two of Flavia’s slaves go missing.

It turns out that there is a killer lurking in the sacred grove; one who targets women and who has successfully avoided detection for years. With the local vigiles failing to properly investigate the crime, Flavia decides to take on the case. However, can Flavia catch a murderer clever enough to escape justice for two decades, especially once the Emperor’s sinister secret agent Karus takes over the investigation? Forced to work with Karus once again, can Flavia find justice for all the murdered women, or will she end up as the next victim of one of Rome’s most dangerous killers?

The Grove of the Caesars is a deeply compelling and highly entertaining novel that once again follows the clever and likeable protagonist, Flavia Albia, as she investigates a gruesome murder in the heart of ancient Rome. This is the eighth book in the excellent Flavia Albia series, which acts as a sequel to the 20-book long Marcus Didius Falco series of historical murder mystery novels. I have been a major fan of the Flavia Albia books for years, having read and reviewed all the previous novels in the series as soon as they came out (make sure to check out my reviews for the previous three books, The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy and A Capitol Death). All of Davis’s previous novels have been extremely enjoyable, and I have been looking forward to reading The Grove of the Caesars for some time now, and once again Davis did not disappoint. The Grove of the Caesars is another outstanding read that successfully combines together a great murder mystery storyline with a detailed historical setting and engaging central protagonist to produce a captivating narrative that I ended up reading in very short order.

At the centre of this amazing novel is a captivating and dark mystery storyline that sets the protagonist against a cunning and vicious serial killer. The Grove of the Caesars actually has two mysteries contained within it, one involving buried scrolls that the protagonist finds hidden within a cave, and the more pressing case of the murderer within the gardens. Flavia ends up working on both cases simultaneously, and the two mysteries wrap together quite well to produce a great storyline, especially when also combined with some of the other plot elements that Davis throws into it. Both of these mysteries are really clever, and the author makes sure to fill the book with all manner of alternative suspects, intriguing swerves and false leads to keep the reader guessing right up to the end. There were a number of fantastic elements to these mysteries, from the impressive way that they were investigated to the stunning developments and the great conclusions both of them had, including some surprising revelations that came out at the end of the case of the buried scrolls. Davis once again makes sure to portray the investigation in a very modern manner, so that this case felt more like a contemporary mystery novel at times, which I thought worked really well with her enjoyable protagonist and which fit in with the very modern way that the author portrays her historical setting. I was a bit surprised about how dark this book got at times, as Davis, usually has a bit of a lighter tone with her writing, even though they follow murder mysteries. However, the central case of the serial killings was pretty gruesome at times as the antagonist, who displayed a number of characteristics associated with more modern serial killers, did some rather horrible things to his various victims. While it did give this book a bit of a stronger tone at times, I felt that having such an evil antagonist really helped to drag me into the story, as I looked forward to seeing him get caught, and this was overall a really excellent mystery storyline.

Another key aspect of the story is the detailed and compelling historical setting of ancient Rome. Historical Rome always has such potential as a setting, and Davis always does a fantastic job of bringing the city to life in all its chaotic glory, while also making all the inhabitants seem a lot more modern in their actions and attitudes. The Grove of the Caesars was no different, and I really enjoyed seeing the fun way that Davis melds her captivating mystery with this cool setting to create a great story. However, Davis also makes sure to set this story apart by her exploration of one of ancient Rome’s most fascinating features, Caesar’s gardens. The gardens are a sprawling set of sacred groves, forested areas, winding paths, statues and other intriguing features that were originally commissioned for Caesar himself and then gifted to the city after his death. Davis does an amazing job exploring this historically impressive garden, including its location, features and history, and I had a fantastic time learning more about it. It also serves as a really distinctive and compelling setting for The Grove of the Caesars’s story, and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist explore it trying to find hints and clues to the various crimes. I also enjoyed the more sinister air Davis gave the gardens once the reader knows that there is a killer stalking them, especially at night, and which helps to add a bit of tension to the story in the scenes where the protagonists is walking in the gardens alone.

One of the best parts of this book has to be the fun central protagonist, Flavia Albia, who is one of my favourite main characters in fiction at the moment. Flavia serves as The Grove of the Caesars’s sole narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see most of the story unfold. For the most part, Flavia is a very confident and collected individual with bundles of sass and sarcasm and an unbelievable amount of life experience and cynicism after years spent working as an informant and investigator in Rome. It is thanks to this entertaining world view that most of the book’s humour is derived, as Flavia is full of all manner of funny comments and amusing observations about the world around her. This provides a much lighter tone for most of the novel, as Flavia can be rather sarcastic and witty, even during the darkest of moments. However, in The Grove of the Caesars she does get rather angry in places, especially after witnessing so much violence against women and other helpless characters, and her rage towards the book’s primary antagonist is quite palpable at times, making for some rather dramatic scenes. I also enjoyed the way that Davis works in a large amount of the protagonist’s home and family life into the story, and it is always entertaining to see Flavia interact with her outrageous and eccentric extended family, who offer help and hindrances to her life and investigations in equal measures. I also liked how the author has continued the storyline that sees Flavia and her husband take in and adopt a variety of interesting stray characters they encounter in their cases and add them to their growing household. It was rather fun to see characters who were first introduced in prior books make an impact on this novel’s mystery, and it makes for a fun continuity. I look forward to seeing more of Flavia Albia in the future, and I cannot wait to see what crazy adventures she gets up to next time.

I also have to highlight the wildly entertaining big story moment that occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. In her last few books, Davis has taken to include a major sequence that features Flavia finding herself in the midst of an over-the-top situation. This includes the very funny sequence in Pandora’s Boy which saw an all-out brawl between a huge group of mixed participants in a collapsing temple, or the rather outlandish chase sequence that occurred in The Third Nero, that featured legionnaires, heavy Persian cavalry, chariots and an elephant in the heart of Rome. In The Grove of the Caesars, Davis makes sure to include another of these outrageous moments, this time featuring a desperate boat chase taking place in the middle of a park, thanks to a disused maritime gladiatorial arena. This chase sequence is filled with all manner of mishap and chaotic moment, as Flavia and several other key characters take to several dilapidated boats to try and resolve the situation, which has a rather extreme ending. Needless to say, this was my favourite part of the entire book, and I found myself laughing several times as events unfolded.

Lindsey Davis has once again shown why she is one of the best authors of historical murder mysteries, as The Grove of the Caesars is a wildly entertaining and addictive read. Davis has pulled together and exceptional story, filled with two compelling mysteries, great characters and an intriguing and distinctive historical setting. I had an amazing time reading this book, and it gets a full five-star review from me. I am eagerly awaiting Davis’s next novel (apparently titled A Comedy of Terrors), and I cannot wait to get my next Flavia Albia fix, this time next year. In the meantime, make sure to check out The Grove of the Caesars if you are in the mood for an exciting and clever read.

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

Pandora's Boy Cover.jpg

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.

My Rating:

Five Stars