Deadly Election (A Flavia Albia Mystery #3), by Lindsey Davis
What is it that makes a series compelling? While I am fond of historical mysteries, they are not a genre that I have read as widely as I would perhaps enjoy, given that I have a strong bias towards nonfiction as opposed to fiction in my reading. It is pretty clear what led me to trade an hour and a half or so of normal sleep for finishing this novel, though, and that is a compelling story with appealing characters, complex plotting and characterization, and clear relevance as well as an attention to the setting and context of first century Rome. Given that this book was written as part of an extremely long saga and is the third volume of a spinoff of a larger series involving the protagonist’s adopted father, the sheer bulk of historical reading that the author must have done to construct this novel shines through in details that turn what could have been a dull political read into a compelling murder mystery involving generational patterns of revenge and families divided against themselves and others. The result is a fascinating novel that moves along in a compelling fashion over the course of some 300 pages.
The story itself follows naturally from the previous volume of the series, where Flavia, having (mostly) recovered from a near fatal bout with dysentery in the previous book, escapes the cloying care of her vacationing family in Ostia to conduct some business as an auctioneer in Rome during the heat of the summer. A routine auction turns up a mysterious murder victim whose body has already started to decay and who cannot be clearly identified, and while Flavia attempts to solve the mystery she has to deal with her fussy clients, the Callisti, who are not as wealthy as they might try to promote themselves as, as well the political campaign of S. Vibius Marinus, who is part of a slightly inbred group of candidates for Plebian Aedile, a position which happens to be held by Vibius’ friend and Flavia’s lover (spoiler alert) Manlius Faustus (which is perhaps too worthy of a pun for the manly Faustus). While Flavia seeks to untangle the connections between the various too closely connected competitors for the election of the Aedile and solving another murder mystery when the Callisti’s agent is found dead and put in the same trunk when it is put on auction again, the reader’s attention is drawn to the ways in which political life has always seemed a bit too incestuous.
What does one get out of reading a novel like this one, aside from the rush of reading a well-crafted story about a compelling set of people? Well, the author has given this story more than a usual dose of family drama to add to the claustrophobia of political tension that makes this so worthwhile. Flavia tries to live her own life, yet continually draws upon the resources of her large and powerful extended family. She wonders where she stands with Faustus, and the story decisively moves that romance forward in a compelling way that forces Manlius to act in a brave and honorable fashion to ensure his own freedom of action with regards to his own bossy uncle. Manlius’ associate Vibius, whose campaign he is running, is no less complicated of a person, married to a shrewish and abusive woman who is related to the mess of complicated families, and who commits an act of rather shocking finality that is disclosed at the startling conclusion to the story. Flavia’s immensely appealing nature as not only a solver of mystery but also someone who seeks to help other widows adds some depth to her character as well.