Lindsey Davis’ A Comedy of Terrors

imagesLindsey Davis’ A Comedy of Terrors is the latest in her Flavia Alba series. Featuring a series of business related crimes and murders, often centering upon nuts. This is an amusing setup, but the story takes itself as seriously as most in the series.

Before the text proper there is a list of characters. This is a common feature in mysteries, and rarely a bad idea. The level of personality given to each description associated with a name is much more appreciated still, giving a clear expression of the added personailty and oddity within the book.

Set in 89 AD, this volume starts with Flavia reflecting upon the changes in her life as Saturnalia, Rome’s winter solstace holiday, is approaching. The fact that this is effectively making the book a Christmas special is amusing. Flavia is also reflecting upon the fact that she and her husband have adopted two of his nephews, making them a family with children for the first time. It is a new experience and she makes clear that she intends to give them the best possible life, if only due to her own experiences as an adoptee.

Indeed it is an attempt to take the boys to buy gifts that first results in the finding of a corpse, and an attempt to get the authorities involved. This leads to a humorous and embarrassing moment. It also leads, more indirectly, to the involvement of Flavia in a series of events involving small and strange problems regarding pies and nuts. This itself leads to the compete construction of a mystery which hinges on greater matters, including the deaths of many.

Overall the myriad elements of morality are pushed to feel relatively contemporary. This includes a combination of women with a degree of professionalism, treated with less sexism than some might expect. The use of a woman as the lead investigator, as well as Flavia’s background overall, help the rest of the story. A subplot deals with spousal abuse, and others with various elements of social justice. Her background easily helps a critical reader believe the sympathy shown to people in a number of situations common to ancient Rome. Further certain details, like the Roman version of slavery, go relatively unquestioned. This is overall a wise decision, as leaving a level of disonance between the values do the character service to make the story’s setting more believable.

On the other hand many of the parallels with current world issues, such as the attempts to abuse the system by powerful men, are merely continuations of the oldest problems of corrupt powerful people. They well resonate, and often do, while being entirely appropriate to the era. It is a delicate line, but one that Davis manages to work expertly.

Occasional anachronistic terms such as first aid appear; however, they are generally used in a way that makes sense to the reader. These are rarely over the top, and mostly serve when the storytelling elements needs and a concept must be expressed quickly.

Overall Lindsey Davis’ A Comedy of Terrors is excellent. It features a number of interesting characters, a twisted mystery, and a wonderful setting. While it does not add too many elements to the Flavia Alba Roman Empire series, it does a fine job of illustrating a new status quo. Recommended to those looking for a female led historical mystery.

(Minotaur, 2021)

Warner Holme

Warner Holme is a longtime booklover who tends to read anything he can. He has held many positions, ranging from the educational to medical all the way to the mildly usurous. Largely forgotten by those around him, Warner has lived in a number of locations, yet keeps being pulled back to the south. He currently lives there with his pets, and politely asks not to be disturbed.

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