The Ides Of April (A Flavia Albia Mystery #1), by Lindsey Davis
Because I decided to take up a challenge in Goodreads that involved reading mystery novels, I thought I would try to find some historical mystery novels that I had not already read to add to my background in the genre, and I found the eight-novel Flavia Albia series to be worthy of note on a bit of a whim. As far as whims go, it was a good one, although it did give me plenty of disturbing material to think about when it came to the similarities between the readers and the protagonists of such fiction, and perhaps the writers as well. At any rate, this book definitely whetted my curiosity for the rest of the series and perhaps even the longer series that this one sprang from, but which will take considerable reading over the course of the next few months, if I choose to tackle it. Whatever ends up happening in that regard, this book is certainly a worthwhile one to read and it manages to be a compact and deeply interesting tale that demonstrates the immense skill of the author and the fascination of the first century of Roman history for the reader.
The story is set with an independent youngish widow in her late 20’s seeking business as a private informer. She finds herself with a bad client whose business ended up killing a small boy. Then the client ends up dead, which leads Flavia to wonder how she is going to get paid. Then of course, once other people end up dead of the same reasons, there are fears that a serial killer is on the loose, and we see Flavia’s poor taste in men as well as the trickiness of an intelligent working woman dealing with men who are not always respectful of her insight. The search for victims leads Flavia and others to seek to determine the common link between them, and also eventually leads her to see herself as the next target of the murderous serial killer, who attacks her in the context of a religious festival that involves the death of foxes, at least one of which she considers as a pet. The pace is kept up, the novel is full of insightful misdirection, and the climax and denoument are handled with considerable skill and interest for the reader fond of the dark times.
Can a mystery novel like this offer more than merely escapist fiction. The reign of Diocletian, a time of political paranoia and division not unlike our own, would not immediately appear to be a propitious time to escape to. The lead character, as an adopted widow born in Britain who survived a tough childhood that included rape, is certainly a character that presents the reader with significant challenges, most notably the fact that she has questionable judgment but high spirits and deep intellect. The book, and likely the series as a whole, has unquestionably feminist goals–the portrayal of a socially ambiguous heroine who has senatorial and equestrian adoptive family connections but strives to make her own way and live her own life of dignity in the face of a dangerous ruler and the dishonorable position of a working woman and the legal limitations of her gender in the complex Roman social universe make it clear that gender issues are on the table. But such gender politics as would be intolerable in an essay go down much easier in a well-written historical novel like this one where the reader’s sympathies are engaged with the spunky heroine rather than assaulted with the accusatory language of outrage culture.