Ancient Rome could be a tough place for a woman, but it takes a lot to faze Flavia Albia, Rome’s only female private informer. But in The Ides of April, her first case might be her last. Hired by one of the neighborhood’s more detestable characters, Flavia is tasked with defending the woman from charges stemming from a fatal accident with a runaway cart that killed a toddler. Flavia doesn’t relish working for her client, but the daughter of famed informer Marcus Didius Falco doesn’t back away from a challenge—especially when the coffers are running low. But when Flavia’s awful client is herself killed under suspicious circumstances, Flavia knows the stakes aren’t just about money, but finding a killer who grows increasingly bold in his attacks, even as his choice of victims seems random at first.
Flavia Albia is a spinoff character from Lindsey Davis’s prior series featuring Marcus Didius Falco, an informer (the Roman equivalent of a private investigator) working for, and occasionally drawing ire from, Roman emperors since Vespasian. Flavia’s story picks up during Domitian’s tenure, circa 80 C. E. The emperor is a tyrant ready to send any enemy, real or imagined, to the lions, but Flavia has the street smarts to mostly avoid unnecessary entanglements with the authorities. Some tangles cannot be avoided however: her inquires lead her to work with a local magistrate, or aedile, in tracking down the killer. Or rather, she works with his staff, the querulous Tiberius, who suspects Flavia of knowing more about the murders than she lets on and has a disconcerting habit of turning up when least wanted. As the web of individuals involved grows and the motives for murder remain cloudy, Flavia realizes she has to be very careful about who she can—or should—trust. But has she already made the wrong decision?
Davis falters a bit in her handling of the mystery, but the irrepressible Flavia is the primary factor for picking up the series. Wise to the world and more than willing to take on the tough streets of Rome with her sharp wit and quick thinking, Flavia easily takes her place among fun-but-tough female amateur investigators. Fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phynre Fisher or Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell might recognize a kindred spirit here. Davis’s deep familiarity with Roman history is another compelling factor. She easily inserts nuggets of history encompassing everything from Roman traffic control to the implications of one’s garment choice, while seamlessly making the ancient city come alive. While familiarity with Davis’s prior Marcus Falco series isn’t necessary, it is necessary to read Flavia’s story in order, starting with The Ides of April. Audiobook narrators Lucy Brown and Jane Collingwood are wonderful in conveying Flavia’s humorous voice while ably pronouncing some trickier Roman verbiage, and Davis’s own maps and cast of characters in the print editions helps to keep everyone sorted.