A Body in the Bathhouse
Arrow, 2002 (2001)
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
have read every one of this series of historical mysteries, enjoying both the seedy ambience of the Roman Empire that they invoke, and the irreverent, but competent, personality of Roman informer Marcus Didius Falco. The previous two entries in the series,
One Virgin Too Many
Ode to a Banker
have shown us a Falco mired down in family matters, his promotion to the equestrian level, and investigations in Rome. This time he and Helena get to flit around the Empire once more.
t first Falco refuses Vespasian's request that he investigate overexpenditure in a major works program in Britain. After all, he and Helena have a new infant daughter, Sosia Favonia, and have just swapped houses with Falco's Pa. Falco has recently taken on his two brothers-in-law, Justinus and Aelianus, as assistants. But then his favorite sister Maia's home is trashed. It seems she is under threat from a rejected suitor, no less than the Empire's Chief Spy and Falco's old foe, Anacrites.
ritain suddenly seems a safe refuge, with the added incentive of tracking down the disreputable contractors responsible for the odorous body found underneath the tiles of Falco's old bathhouse. They sail off, taking a kidnapped Maia, babies, nursemaid and all to the '
' where Falco and Helena first met. As he says to her '
You were a snooty, angry piece and I was a sour-faced, hard beggar.
' Though I miss the interactions between the two of them in those early episodes, it's good to get more of the author's tongue in cheek commentary on her own homeland, and to see Helena playing an active role again.
he works project involves the rebuilding of the palace of Togidubnus, a loyal supporter and old friend of the Emperor, in what is now Fishbourne. Costs have skyrocketed and there have been a sequence of mysterious deaths, one in yet another bathhouse. The architect, supervisors, craftsmen and laborers are all at odds and pointing fingers at each other, and both Anacrites' best assassin Perella and a mysterious '
young painting assistant
' lurk in the vicinity. It's fun to watch Falco struggle with a toothache as he mentors his brothers-in-law, works his way through the various mysteries and has several close scrapes with dogs, mobs and deadweights.
Body in the Bathhouse
is one of the best entries in a while in a long-running series that has kept a consistently high standard. I especially appreciated its depiction of the scope of a Roman building project, and assume that the author's own civil service experience gave her insights into the organizational politics involved. And revenge is sweet for Falco when he finally catches up with Gloccus and Cotta, his bathhouse banes from previous episodes. If you enjoy historical mysteries or have ever dealt with contractors who don't deliver, you'll love this book!
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