Tour’s Books Blog

May 29, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Alexandria by Lindsey Davis

Alexandria is the 19th outing for the intrepid Marcus Didius Falco. Davis writes in the first person and Falco is our amiable and sardonic guide. The wryly witty Falco has grown assured and comfortable with himself over the years. He’s married now and the father of 2 girls with a third child on the way. His wife, Helena Justina, is the daughter of a Roman senator and he greatly respects her and her intelligence. The story of his private life with Helena – she was married when they first met and loathed each other on sight – tells so much of Roman life. I highly recommend reading all the books – just the story of Falco and Helena will make it worth your while. Now, as his personal life has become that of a settled man, a father and a husband, the mysteries have also changed. The last few have seen him and his little family traveling outside Rome to places like Delphi in Greece.

As the book opens, Falco, his little family and his restless brother-in-law Aulus are arriving in Alexandria, still the most valued center of learning in the ancient world. They intend to do some sightseeing and try and get Aulus accepted into the Museion. Rumor says Falco is also here on Vespasian’s errand, (before anyone goes running to check, the year is 77AD, about 100 years after the death of Julius Caesar) and more than one person is worried by his presence. Falco’s very real vacation plans get sidetracked when the Head Librarian of the Great Library, Theon, a dinner guest at his uncle’s house the previous night, is found dead at his desk in a locked office.

The Prefect of Egypt asks Falco to investigate, not a request Falco can refuse. Since the Prefect figures he’s already on the Emperor’s payroll, he doesn’t deserve any extra payment, but the wily Falco gets ‘expenses’ – in advance. By the time Falco gets to the scene of the crime, if a crime it was, the body is gone, the site cleared up and the centurion, Tenax, the man stuck with the initial investigation, is his only ‘eye witness’ account of the discovery.

Falco’s investigation runs smack into the self-important, back-stabbing upper echelon of the Museion. Naturally, like the scholars they are, they start lying immediately, especially Philetus, the Director and technically Theon’s boss. Just finding the body sends Falco chasing all over before it was finally admitted there was an illegal necropsy being performed by the head zoo keeper, Philadelphion, and his assistants, Chaereas and Chaeteas. Since it was highly illegal, it was well attended by the students – and Falco and Aulus. Often at loose ends, Aulus has taken to acting as Falco’s assistant, a not very socially acceptable pastime for a senator’s son.

The necropsy shows something that a simple physical examination of the body would not have shown – laurel leaves in Theon’s digestive tract. Laurel was woven into the wreaths that his uncle had for his guests the night before, but surely a man as learned as Theon knew not to eat them – unless it was a suicide. Strange time and place for that – and why?

Sitting in on the daily meeting of the Museion’s directors – with Helena at his side ostensibly to take notes because Falco ‘hurt his hand’, leads Falco to speculate there is some fiddling with the accounts. He is refused a copy of the figures. Interviews with Philadelphion reveal little, other than he was a flirt with an eye for the ladies. Even pregnant ones like Helene. Aulus finds the slave who cleaned Theon’s office after his death – at the order of Nicanor – the head of the law department, one of the Museion directors. And try as he might, Falco is having great trouble getting Nicanor alone for an interview. To make a bad day complete, Falco’s much unloved father – a man infamous for his dealing in fake antiquities – shows up at his uncle’s house, and is surprisingly welcome. Why would Fulvius, his maternal uncle and dear old Pa be friends?

An interview with the Timosthenes, Librarian at the Library at Seraprion, called the Daughter Library and the one available to the public, reveals that Aulus was accepted because of Falco! Philetus, the Director of the Museion is terrified of whatever Vespasian has sent Falco to investigate. Now Falco REALLY wants to get his hands on that budgetary document. The other tidbit was the scroll count. Timosthenes readily admits to wanting the post at the Great Library, but does think he has a chance. He is not a famed scholar, but an administrator, so his chance is slight despite his obvious qualifications, plus his managing techniques are different. They had just done a scroll count. As a public library they exercise far greater care than at the Great Library where only staff, accredited visiting scholars and the 30-40 scholar students admitted to the Museion had access.

Falco is pulled inexorably to the scroll counts and vastly different estimates he’s been given – anywhere from 400,000 to 700,000 scrolls in the Great Library. Falco and Helena take a long ride around the inland lake, Mareotis, to discuss the case. While Falco was out investigating, Helena had been chatting up Cassius, the life partner of Fulvius. A self taught scholar, he knew there was friction between Theon and Philetus regarding disposition of the old scrolls and duplicates in the Great Library. They were at odds over the value of keeping them. Philadelphius, the zoo keeper, felt the natural sciences were not getting enough funding or international recognition, Zenon, the astronomer, felt the planets were of greater value than animals and resents the funding given to the zoo – and he seemed to have some hold over Philetus thanks to those missing budget reports Falco tried to snag a copy of. And the ever elusive Nicanor the lawyer lusts for the mistress of Philadelphion, Roxana. In short, it wasn’t all that different from any university today. The hot winds send the two hurrying home and there sits Katutis, the man who claimed to be a guide and was more likely a spy of some sort, still loitering outside his uncle’s house.

Unexpectedly, Nicanor is at the house waiting for him. After avoiding him, Falco is surprised he had shown up voluntarily. He’s in for a bigger shock when Nicanor offers him a bribe to influence the choice for next Head Librarian made by the Prefect of Egypt. A lawyer was trying to bribe an informer? And why would Falco be seen as having influence? Aparently Roxane isn’t all Nicanor is lusting after.

The news of the short list for Head Librarian has Falco heading out that evening to the Museion to see what was getting gossiped about. Timosthenes took being left off the list very badly, storming from the meeting. Falco no more than arrives at the Museion when a woman’s scream sends him heading toward the zoo. The giant crocodile, Sobek, is loose from his enclosure, lured out by a slaughtered goat, be he’d rather go after Falco. The screams of Roxana finally bring Thalia (an old friend of Falco’s and Helena’s known for exotic dancing, among other things), Philadelphion and his two helpers, Aulus and some scholars. The dead body that was Aulus’ friend, the young student scholar Heras. Exhausted from wrestling with the croc and the shock of death affecting Aulus, the two head back without even asking questions.

Early next morning, bruised and sore from the night before, Falco and Helena head back to the Museion and zoo, stopping at Thalia’s tent to talk. They come away feeling their old friend is either hiding something or lying outright. Neither is very palatable. The two zoo keepers helpers (I took to calling them the Cheetos) seem intent on blaming the dead Heras for taunting Sobek with the dead goat – a very unlikely occurrence. And strangely they tell exactly the same story.

Roxana tries to spins a tale, gets called on it and claims that the freed Sobek must have been meant for Philadelphion and let loose by the jealous Nicanor who not only wants the Librarian job but the lovely Roxana as well. Helena and Falco agree on one thing, the woman, like everyone else is lying. Another chat with the slippery Philetus yields little, but Falco’s parting thoughts are a gem.

I left thinking how very much I would have liked to see Philetus dead, embalmed and mummified on a dusty shelf. If possible, I would consign him to a rather disreputable temple where they got the rites wrong. He festered. The man was only good for a long eternity of mould and decay.”

Falco chats with the centurion Tenax about any rumors of money fiddling at the Museion, but is told the Prefect doesn’t even try to oversee their accounts. He arrives back at the Museion – just as the strange man that had been at his uncles house the night before came out. It was odd, as a trader would have no call to be near the Museion. Falco and Aulus meet at the Library the disturbance inside can mean only thing – another body. It could have been natural causes, but a possible suicide, an ‘accident’ with an escaped croc and now a natural death is 3 too many to be believed, especially by Falco.

Finally Falco makes headway in his investigation – the man he keeps seeing is Diogenes, the scroll collector. Once again the circle comes back to scrolls and money. Unraveling the truth includes yet another death, this one gruesome, before Falco solves the crime – or more correctly a part of the crime. Thinking the matter settled, Falco, Helena and their little family finally get to see the pyramids and other sights before returning to Alexandria for their voyage home. Here Falco gets two key pieces of information that make him realize just how wrong he was. And while I worked out who did it long before Falco, it did take far longer than with most mysteries and the ending was good. And who saves Falco’s life is an interesting twist too.

For friends unfamiliar with Davis’ historical mystery series I have often described them as “Elvis Cole or Spenser in a toga”. It has many of the genre characteristics of the wise-cracking PI. Lindsey Davis supplements Falco character, a man who came up from poverty and has a jaundiced view of the bribery and corruption in the Roman bureaucracy, with the unique perspective of Helena, a Roman matron of a high rank, impeccable family and great education. She is a significant player in many of the books – and even more clever and perceptive than her husband in many ways. Throughout the series, Falco’s relationships with his mother, sisters, his usually absent Pa, Helena, her brothers, parents, his own extended family and friends, and the Emperor Vespasian and his two sons gives an interesting perspective on Roman life at many levels. Davis remains as fresh and sharp as ever in Alexandria.

Though Lindsey Davis is not always spot on with her books, Alexandria is a very strong entry in the Marcus Didius Falco series. It has a large cast of characters, so you’ll likely need the key characters list in the front of the book to help keep them straight. She and John Maddox Roberts, my other favorite Roman mystery author, always have one handy.  Lindsey Davis deftly creates characters, settings and atmosphere and still manages a very clever plot in a fast paced and an engagingly written tale. Sit back and enjoy the fruits of her considerable skills with this convoluted mystery yarn.

My Grade: A- (4.5*)

Who would enjoy this book: Fans of John Maddox Roberts SPQR series, Steven Saylor, and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. The rating would be PG.

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