The Graveyard Of The Hesperides (A Flavia Albia Mystery #4), by Lindsey Davis
This book continues the author’s winning streak of writing a compelling mystery series set in a dark world that is both historically researched and chillingly relevant. Beyond the remainder of the series so far, this book manages to do a few things particularly well, such as exploring the hopelessness of prostitutes and their lives, and the way that logistics can be deadly. A large part of this plot’s surprise comes about from the squabble between various characters over pulses and the supply of local bars. As has frequently been the case throughout history (and is the case now for many nations), concerns about domestic business led to official and unofficial harassment (and worse) of foreign business interests that sought to disrupt profitable business ventures overseen by locals. All of this investigation is going on over a few day period where Flavia’s wedding to the manly Manlius Faustus is approaching and where the novelist really wants the reader to get a sense of the poisonous air of conspiracy and the levels of deep-seated corruption that exist within Roman society that are both lamented and exploited by the main characters in the novel. After all, without a corrupt realm it is hard for a private informer like Flavia to have much of an influence.
The story of this novel is straightforward enough. Manlius has sought to diversify his own business holdings by taking over the contracting business that was once held by one of the women who died in the first Flavia Albia novel, whose house is being renovated for the wedding. While undertaking work in a dive called the Garden of the Hesperides, the body of a woman is found and thought to be that of a waitress from ten years ago who suddenly disappeared. Further digging and the finding of five more dead bodies of unknown provenance adds to the mystery, and further attacks show that the murderers are still at loose and unwilling to let the investigation go on. Flavia and Faustus seek to uncover clues and meet people unwilling to speak out all while their families are involved in the wedding planning of a ceremony that takes place in a few days. Finally, on the day of the wedding itself, the pieces all come together in surprising and appropriate ways where a bolt of lightning ends up injuring Fautus and providing cosmic justice for an unsolved murder of five Egyptians who wanted to expand their pulse market at the expense of local interests.
What is the contemporary relevance of this sort of case? The author shows a remarkable ambivalence concerning abortion, recognizing it as murder but also showing a great deal of compassion for the fate of women (and children) in exploitative situations. Flavia is forced yet again to deal with her own memories of childhood exploitation that is similar to what she sees here and to the repercussions of the Roman abuse of the vulnerable. The author deals rather thoughtfully with the problems of the sex trade as well as the logistics and legality of bar food and the supply of marble and even sacrifices. For wary readers, the author also provides the wise advice that many crimes are solved by investigators and detectives because the criminals themselves cannot simply do nothing and let a cold case die but often feel it necessary to try to cut off loose threads and by acting demonstrate that the killers are at large and still concerned about the solving of long ago crimes. All in all, this is a thoughtful and expertly crafted book that leaves the reader not only with a good yarn but with a lot to think about.