Lindsey Davis’ eighth Flavia Albia novel, Grove of the Caesars, finds modern resonance in ancient Rome.
With her husband away tending to a family emergency, Albia has her hands full just dealing with her household, perennially under renovation and thus a big draw for unscrupulous contractors. The discovery of a clutch of ancient scrolls leads to a search for their provenance, in the hope that they’ll fetch a good price at auction. This domestic fuss and bother is upended when a body is found in the sacred grove of Julius Caesar, and workmen reveal that it is not the first. To bring a serial killer to justice, Albia must work alongside Julius Karus, an arrogant member of the Vigiles (the firefighters and police of ancient Rome) who appears content to accept easy answers wherever he finds them.
There is so much to unpack in this story, which balances a truly grim series of crimes with several funny subplots, often intermingling them in surprising ways. Two young enslaved boys gifted to Albia’s household witness the killing and disappear; what starts as an odd bit of comic relief ends in a mix of tragedy and tenderness. Albia herself continues to be a treasure, grateful for her place in society because it was not always such, but willing to disobey nearly any order if her curiosity is piqued.
Davis fills her stories with meticulous research, and the details make for such rich reading, we would likely follow Albia on a day of errands and light entertainment with no crime to speak of. But it’s thrilling to watch her follow a line of inquiry and connect the dots that others fail to see, so we can be glad that she rarely fails to find trouble and charge headlong toward it.