When I finished “The Ides Of April”, the first book in this Falco-the-next-generation series, I wasn’t sure that I liked Flavia Albia because I found her distant and rash, setting out to find trouble.
In “Enemies At Home”, I began to like her a little better.
I enjoyed her insider/outsider status. She is far more of an outsider than her adopted father, Falco, plebeian turned citizen and art dealer, ever was: a woman, a non-Roman orphan, a widow without a household and carrying on the disreputable profession of Informer. Her outsider status manifests in a lower sense of entitlement than Falco had and a deeper understanding of the threats that Roman laws and traditions hold for her.
Yet Flavia Albia is not a total outsider. Her uncles are Senators, her mother is a Patrician, Flavia Albia herself is a landlord (albeit a low rent one) and she is able to mix on equal terms with Aediles and Tribunes. Her insider status manifests in a willingness to take on those in authority, including the ones in authority in the local criminal underworld, that gets her into more trouble than her outsider status.
What made me warm to Flavia Albia in “Enemies At Home” was her willingness to see slaves as people and not just as property. Slaves are the enemy at home, outnumbering their masters, having access to the most intimate details of their owner’s lives and present at their most vulnerable moments. Fear of what slaves might do if things turned sour resulted in Roman laws that defaulted to executing all slaves associated, however indirectly, with any act of violence towards their masters.
“Enemies At Home” tells of Flavia Albia’s investigation into the murder, apparently by their slaves, of a newly married couple. She sets out to prove that the slaves didn’t do it.
Her investigations provide an insight into the lives of slaves and the curious relationship they have with their masters: on the one hand, the slaves are part of the household and intimately involved in its operation, on the other hand they are property that can be bought or sold in the same way as a horse or a cow. Flavia Albia herself is cast in the role of (temporary) slave master when she is given a young man to “look after her” for the duration of the investigation. She handles it in a very human way: making mistakes, feeling frustration, but never losing sight of dealing with another person, with thoughts and emotions of their own.
This is a pleasing whodunnit, with a wide range of potential evil-doers, enough surprises along the way to keep life interesting and a denouement that is both credible and hard to foresee.
The home in which the crimes took place is described so well that I felt I had spent time sitting in the chairs in the courtyard. My favourite scene in the book occurs there: Flavia Albia sitting with three other woman, a mixture of suspects and victims, drinking wine, building a rapport and then being discovered by two male visitors. The friendly way in which these women from disparate backgrounds interacted felt real and timeless. The fact that Flavia Albia, even in an apparent moment of wine-induced intimacy, is still investigating covertly, told me a great deal about who she is and how she thinks.
In t"Enemies At Home", although Flavia Albia keeps her independence of spirit, her ability to engage in banter with authority figures and her willingness to confront those more powerful than she is, she seems a little more vulnerable than in the first book. Perhaps she’s just a little older. Perhaps she is just taking on more serious enemies. Whatever the reason, I liked her more for it.
The book ends with dramatic events, occasioned by a reckless but plausible error in judgement by Flavia and ending with an intimate intervention that may change Flavia’s relationship with her family and with the Aedile that she has been working with.
This increased my sense of Flavia’s vulnerability and, I suspect, sets up the relationships for the next book, “Deadly Election”, which is now on my (still growing faster than I can read them) TBR book pile.