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A Dying Light in Corduba
I admit to being a sucker for crime fiction, and over the past few years I had come very close to buying Lindsey Davis' books before. Their mosaic-like covers stand out well on British shelves, and she is prolific enough to have produced a neat matching row of stories about the life and acts of one Marcus Didius Falco, an investigator who moves in some high circles, not to mention some pretty low ones.
Usually I am fastidious about reading a series in the order in which they were written, but my local bookshop persuaded me to do otherwise by the simple ruse of reducing the price of this one, so this is the first I have read. It won't be the last.
The story owes more to Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler than it does to Colin Dexter or Patricia Cornwell. A helpful dramatis personae at the front immediately identifies the antagonists and the protagonists, and a map sets the scene, but the atmosphere is entirely conjured up by Davis' clever immersion in Roman life. All kinds of things which had never occurred to me - could you hire carriages from some primitive Hertz? - slip into the tale, without ever giving the impression of knowledge being paraded.
Helena, whom we might describe as Falco's significant other, is on the verge of producing their first child when he finds himself sent to Baetica, the area of Spain around modern Seville. After a dinner in Rome thrown by the olive oil producers of Baetica a man is killed and top spymaster Anacrites left for dead. A little investigation shows that there may be a cartel in the making in the olive oil business, and in Baetica olive oil is very big business indeed. Davis crunches a few figures to give some idea of the potential value of this crop, and one can readily see that the rewards for a bit of trickery are sufficient to put a few consciences into neutral. Falco has to find out whether there really is a cartel, who attacked the two men, and bring them to justice, assisted by Helena who has insisted on going with him to Spain. Quite apart from the usual imperatives, Falco has the added strain of wanting to wrap up the case in time to get Helena back to Rome to have the baby, a plot device which one hopes won't be used too often.
The characters are rich and plainly drawn, partly because we see them through Falco's eyes, and Falco is not a man to have lukewarm opinions. Watch for some very uncivil civil servants, a dancer who is not all she seems, and a provincial governor whose way of dealing with inadequate subordinates could well be copied by a few CEOs today.
Above all, luxuriate in the Mediterranean warmth of Baetica in the first century. Get out a clean toga, grab a cup of wine and settle down with the book. I should add that Davis generously lists, at the back of the book, some of those who helped with her research, which avoids the danger that the acknowledgements will give the plot away ("Why is she thanking an authority on first-century aqueduct construction methods?") while proving that the research was done.
Falco is a humorous, sharp narrator with a gift for cutting asides, and I look forward to meeting him again soon.
GRAHAM BRACK , a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.