Fatal Legacy is the latest in Lindsey Davis’ Flavia Albia series. Once again featuring our lead working as a private investigator of sorts, the book starts as one of the lower stakes cases she has encountered. However, like many such cases, matters quickly spin out of control.
Specifically the case largely centers around the daughter of a freed slave and her plans to marry. The legal and political intricacies of the Roman Empire create problems herec and not simply because it is a love match as opposed to an arranged marriage. The questions of not only money but legitimacy push into play quickly, and several layers of family secrets. As Flavia makes increasing attempts to understand the situation, everyone from nosy relatives to corrupt lawyers seem to not only have an opinion, but actively interfere in her investigations.
A specific narrative oddity of this book comes in the form of a pair of family trees. While maps and a list of characters are nothing new to murder mysteries, indeed they are quite common in the Flavia Albia Series in particular, the family trees present a unique complication as they explain a potential story complication at the beginning and provide something of a spoiler for a major character shift and motivation in the latter case. Indeed the family tree in the back was considered enough of a concern that at least some copies of the book feature a spoiler warning before it.
These books are beloved as much for the setting as the characters, with a vivid and believable look at ancient Roman society. More than some other volumes in the series, Fatal Legacy deals with the oddities of Roman law and life. This not only includes the oddities of the legal system and how bribery was almost expected in many situations, but also the oddities of the view of sex and gender in the era. These range from the complicated assumptions of inheritance when male lineage is in doubt, to the not quite enlightened views on homosexual male attraction. Given how both have been treated as flat and two dimensional quite often in the past, it is good to see a detailed look at them from a woman’s point of view, allowing both an acknowledgment of the negatives and disturbing nature they possess while also allowing a more nuanced and real interpretation.
“Helena Justina did realize you cannot help some people, most in fact,” is stated on page 295 of chapter 44. It’s a good reflection on the state of things in the book. While a fair little bit is upset in a number of family units, almost none of it is for the better. Lives are disrupted and destroyed, death visits the narrative in the present and past, and what ending comes is in many ways bittersweet or downright depressing.
This volume is heavier than some of the Flavia Alba books, but in the process gives a deeper look at the oddities of the time and the ways in which the society paralleled hours while diverting starkly. It’s a difficult balancing act which Lindsay Davis achieves with her usual level of wit and skill. Fans of the series, of course, will want to check it out as soon as possible. New readers may find themselves occasionally a little disoriented, however by and enlarge the book is quite good at explaining the lead, her profession, and her personal situation anytime it becomes relevant.