Thursday, 8 July 2010

Lindsey Davis: Nemesis (2010)

Edition: Century, 2010
Review number: 1404

After the (to me) unreadable Rebels and Traitors, Davis returns to the Roman crime series which made her name, with the nineteenth Falco novel, Nemesis. But this addition to the series is much darker than most of them: this is not quite the wise-cracking Falco of old.

The darkness starts right at the beginning of the novel, which opens with the deaths of Falco's infant son and his father. The death of new born children has been a part of life throughout history. Take for example Queen Anne, who had the benefit of better medicine and all the care a British Queen could command at the turn of the eighteenth century, but none of whose fifteen children survived to adulthood. And the death of children plays an important part in novels by writers such as Charles Dickens. Yet it is something which is generally skipped over in modern historical fiction. With larger families and more infant mortality, death was a part of life in a way which, at least in the Western world, it is not today. That of course does not mean that parents then did not mourn the death of their children as much as parents today do.

So Nemesis is really about Falco's mourning for both his son and his father, even if in the latter case he doesn't want to show that he is strongly affected. The plot of the story concerns an investigation begun by Falco when he is looking into an unfinished business transaction of his father's. This spirals into a hunt for a family of serial killers, who seem to be protected by someone highly placed in the Roman government, and it becomes a case which pushes Falco onto a morally darker path than he has yet travelled - presumably because of the effects of his bereavement on his emotional state. He becomes a much more ambiguous hero than usual in this series; no  matter how bad his life became (the episode in which he went undercover as a slave in a mine is a prime example), he always previously seemed to be a basically good person. In hard boiled detective terms, the Falco of Nemesis is more Dashiell Hammett's tainted Continental Op than a wisecracking Philip Marlowe.

Pushing a character to do nasty things because of his own emotional pain is all very well, but after eighteen more or less humorous novels in a series it comes as something of a shock to readers. More points for literary quality, then, but fewer for enjoyment of the story. I'd give Nemesis 6/10 as a result - angst is not why I read Falco novels.

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