REVIEW: Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis
In Lindsey Davis’s next book in the beloved Flavia Albia Series, Desperate Undertaking, a mad killer (or killers!) is strewing bodies around in the most gruesome of manners and, true to form, it is up to Flavia Albia to determine what is really going on and stop this bacchanal of death.
In the first century, under Domitian’s reign, strange and brutal goings on are nothing new in Rome. Flavia Albia, daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, has taken over her father’s business as a private informer but she tries to shy away from the brutal, the complicated, and the political – because nothing good comes of any of them. Unfortunately, she’s not very good at turning them down.
This time a commission shows up on her doorstep – someone is staging brutal murders in some of the most beautiful buildings in Rome, each staging different. So far, the only clue was the phrase that one survivor managed to croak, “The undertaker did it…” With little to go on and bodies starting to pile up, Albia has to unravel the strangest mystery of her career in short order if she’s to stop this dismaying orgy of murder.
Dear Ms. Davis,
By this point Manlius Faustus, Flavia Albia’s husband and soon to be former aedile, knows to pretty much just step aside and let her rip. Once Albia’s got the bit of a new mystery between her teeth, not her husband, not her family, not her household, and certainly not the Vigiles are going to stop her from chasing down clues and catching the killer. This time there is more than one – well, the staging and amount of effort that have been put into the murders make that clear. But no one seems able to catch them before the next elaborately staged homage to the gruesome death scenes of classic plays play out.
Albia, as is her wont, fills in any lack of knowledge a reader might have about ancient Rome and, in this case, several well known plays. As she wanders around the city rattling off street directions, discussing famous buildings and (usually) critiquing the famous men who had them built, Albia acts as a sort of murder investigation tour guide.
On the first day, two horrific murders take place which Albia and Mucius (you’ve really got to feel sorry for him), the investigating officer of the VII Cohort of Vigiles, must solve. Albia is going to solve it because her adopted parents knew the victims years ago and Mucius is going to do his best (despite his tribune) because he’s an honest man though not one above using the threat of the vigiles against suspects. Well, at least we’re not talking about the Urban Cohort.
The murders are … gruesome. They are designed to be horrific, to shock the people who discover them, and to (probably) terrify the victims before their deaths. Albia quickly realizes that whoever is behind this is driven by deeply personal rage against specific people. He (most likely) is also damn lucky in that there is a lot of planning involved in these killings with a lot of props and staging needed yet no one seems to have noticed any of it or if they did, they don’t care enough to pay attention. Yet there are clues and Albia swiftly begins to follow up on them. Only more deaths occur even though now people are on the alert and the killer has had the audacity to leave advanced notice.
Many people who might know something must be interviewed, an elaborate funeral must be carried out, Tiberius and Albia – along with several actors and others (including two vigiles who love to discuss the meaning behind the actions in plays) dissect death scenes in plays and wonder if these will be the next to be used. Oh, and Albia has to try and decide who is lying to her (usually everyone to some degree) and what she can believe.
I’m disappointed to say that Albia – clever though she still is – let me down a bit. Several times, actually. She deduces that the killer is probably known to her parents and discusses with us the fact that she ought to write Falco and Helena Justina and ask “Hey, do you remember anyone who might …?” but then dismisses doing this because she wants to be the one to solve the crimes. And then several times she essentially “goes into the basement alone” while the killers are still loose. Yeah, I rolled my eyes and mentally groaned “no, she isn’t?!” quite a few times.
Still I enjoyed watching her best most of the men around her and use her brain to sift through the clues even if one is unnecessarily cryptic. No, she shouldn’t have let her temper goad her into stalking off a few times but she – along with a few others – gets the job done. But this book isn’t so much a whodunnit as a “watch Albia catch the killer