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Not quite up to the previous novels, but still good
on August 25, 2011
I came to the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries much later in the series (A Body in the Bath House) via Audible; the story was lively and the narrator distinct. I'm more familiar with the period of the late Roman Republic, but Davis' cheeky humor and fun characterizations have helped breathe life into the early Vespasian rule (68ish BCE) after the chaotic "year of the four emperors." Falco, a former soldier with the disgraced Second Augusta legion in Brittania, is a thirty year-old "informer" - roughly, private investigator - who in the first novel (The Silver Pigs) finds himself elevated from his usual sordid cases to one that brings him to the attention of the emperor and the senatorial Camillus family. A diamond in the rough however he may protest otherwise, that adventure launches him on a very different trajectory (several of which threads I spoiled for myself by starting with a later novel, but won't repeat here). Suffice to say, there is romance, thorough characterization, a solid mix of new adventures and people you will find as inescapable as Falco himself does, and a slow-building ambition. Davis appears to let very little time pass in the Falco time frame between novels (weeks, usually), so it's a slow but exciting ride-along in the characters' lives.
The Iron Hand of Mars follows the almost exclusively Rome-based predecessor, Venus in Copper, and returns to a road-trip adventure: this time, to the German frontier on Vespasian's errand to check on the legendary/notorious XIV legion and a German prophetess/rebel. The devil - and the delight - is in the details. As usual, Davis manages to work in children and and animals, both of which complicate Falco's life (and, occasionally, provide a surprise assist) as he strives to fulfill his mission.
At times Falco seems far too capable for his years and his station, a bit of Tarzan on the Tiber. Quick-witted, sharp tongued, ostensibly a ladies' man with a promiscuous past who gets tamed by the right woman (there are romance novel elements in this series, but of a more monogomous bent), able (and likely) to take a severe beating but otherwise apparently unkillable, smart enough to outwit senators and other unsavory types, a bit of a roguish loner who is also a devoted shepherd over his large rabble of a family, a Republican who nevertheless gets on better than he likes with the new (if rustic) royal family...it all adds up to rich stew of Rome in all its flawed glory and the people who aren't that different from ourselves.