Venus in Copper by Lindsey Davis

(mild spoilers)

Put yourself in the shoes of Marcus Didius Falco. You’ve just been bailed out of prison, stuck there by a jealous palace spy. You need to make a whopping big pile of money in order to marry your amazing patrician girlfriend, but your best hope of doing so relies on working for the palace with said vindictive spy. You live on the sixth floor of a slum with a landlord whose thugs give you a kicking to be going on with whenever they see you, even when you’re actually up to date with your rent. So when a noveau riche business ask you to investigate a supposed black widow that’s after one of their number – without him knowing – for garish money, what you going to do?

Of course you’re going to take the job.

The key to success with any long running series is variety. Here it is provided by a pivot from conspiracies against the Emperor to humdrum bickering and wrangling over money and unsuitable attachments with an increased focus on some of the everyday brutalities of ancient Rome. The noveau riche, the Hortensii, are freed slaves – as is the black widow, Severina Zotica. Both of them own property, operating it with varying level of care and ruthlessness. It all feels rather sordid without being unrelentingly grim and in this, it’s perfect scenery for Falco to crash through.

Falco, as I might have made clear previously, is nigh perfect material for a detective. He is chippy yet sensitive, a romantic and a cynic, tough yet smart enough to be scared, and always ready with a quip. A huge amount of the joy of this series comes from bouncing along with his narrative and thoughts.

But credit to everything else. Davis does her research. She writes fantastic plots, intriguing and well paced. It’s not one of the sort of mysteries where you have a fair shot at working out who did it and how, but it’s very very good at spooning out the why. It’s also got a cracking romance subplot, full of tension and joy. If there’s one romance I wish I could have written, it’s Falco and Helena Justina. The plot and subplot mesh together effortlessly

Venus in Copper is another example of why the Falco series is my series outside of fantasy (sorry Cornwell and Le Carre). It’s heartwarming, sharp, clever, and tremendous fun. If I haven’t persuaded you to try this series by now, I don’t know how to do so.

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