Caged in frustration by having to work alongside the reptilian Chief Spy Anacrites, Marcus Didius Falco devises the perfect escape; become a tax collector in the Great Census of A.D. 73. If his services are accepted by Vespasian and Titus, he may even rise high enough in the middle ranks to marry his long-suffering companion, Helena Justina. But a toothier job roars his way when the Empire's prized lion is mysteriously stabbed to death and Rome's star gladiator is found murdered. Now, Falco must enter the dark and desperate world of the Coliseum to hunt for a madman who must kill -- or be killed.
Talk about capital punishment: in the Rome of A.D. 73, top criminals are torn to pieces by a specially trained lion. And when that lion is himself found murdered with a spear, who better than Marcus Didius Falco, the Sam Spade of ancient Rome, to handle the case? Davis's 10th Falco adventure (after last year's Three Hands in the Fountain) has already won the first Ellis Peters/British Crime Writers award for a historical mystery, and should delight fans of her series. Newcomers, however, might occasionally wish that Falco weren't quite such a thorny character: like the cops on Law and Order, he seems to go out of his way to crack wise and to alienate partners and suspects alike. Working as a tax investigator with Anarcrites, a former chief spy for the emperor Vespasian, Falco calls his new associate "incompetent, devious and cheap." Falco's father, an antiquities dealer, is introduced as "the devious miser Didius Favonius"; his mother and sister are treated with equal scorn. Only Helena Justina, a senator's daughter, gets any respect from the cynical Falco: "She was neat, scathing, intelligent, wondrously unpredictable. I still could not believe my luck that she had even noticed me, let alone that she lived in my apartment, was the mother of my baby daughter, and had taken charge of my disorganized life." When he's not bad-mouthing most of Rome's population, Falco follows an increasingly tangled skein of clues to Greece and Tripoli, in search not only of the lion's killer but also of an elusive herb that sounds very much like garlic. As usual, Davis's research into the customs of the period is impeccable: it's only the excessively angst-ridden modernity of her lead character that occasionally rocks the read. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 31, 2000
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Excerpt from Two for the Lions by Lindsey Davis
My partner and I had been well set up to earn our fortunes until we were told about the corpse.
Death, it has to be said, was ever-present in those surroundings. Anacrites and I were working among the suppliers of wild beasts and gladiators for the arena Games in Rome; every time we took our auditing note tablets on a site visit, we spent the day surrounded by those who were destined to die in the near future and those who would only escape being killed if they killed someone else first. Life, the victors' main prize, would be in most cases temporary.
But there amongst the fighters' barracks and the big cats' cages, death was commonplace. Our own victims, the fat businessmen whose financial affairs we were so delicately probing as part of our new career, were themselves looking forwards to long, comfortable lives-yet the formal description of their business was Slaughter. Their stock-in-trade was measured as units of mass murder; their success would depend upon those units satisfying the crowd in straightforward volume terms, and upon their devising ever more sophisticated ways to deliver the blood.
We knew there must be big money in it. The suppliers and trainers were free men-a prerequisite of engaging in commerce, however sordid-and so they had presented themselves with the rest of Roman society in the Great Census. This had been decreed by the Emperor on his accession, and it was not simply intended to count heads. When Vespasian assumed power in a bankrupt Empire after the chaos of Nero's reign, he famously declared that he would need four hundred million sesterces to restore the Roman world. Lacking a personal fortune, he set out to find funding in the way that seemed most attractive to a man with middle-class origins. He named himself and his elder son, Titus, as Censors, then called up the rest of us to give an account of ourselves and of everything we owned. Then we were swingeingly taxed on the latter, which was the real point of the exercise.
The shrewd amongst you will deduce that some heads of household found themselves excited by the challenge; foolish fellows tried to minimize the figures when declaring the value of their property. Only those who can afford extremely cute financial advisers ever get away with this, and since the Great Census was intended to rake in four hundred million it was madness to attempt a bluff. The target was too high; evasion would be tackled head-on-by an Emperor who had tax farmers in his recent family pedigree.
The machinery for extortion already existed. The Census traditionally used the first principle of fiscal administration: the Censors had the right to say: we don't believe a word of what you're telling us. Then they made their own assessment, and the victim had to pay up accordingly. There was no appeal.
No, that's a lie. Free men always have the right to petition the Emperor. And it's a perk of being Emperor that he can twitch his purple robe and augustly tell them to get lost.
While the Emperor and his son were acting as Censors, it would in any case be a waste of time to ask them to overrule themselves. But first they had to make the hard-hitting reassessments, and for that they needed help. To save Vespasian and Titus from being forced personally to measure the boundaries of estates, interrogate sweaty Forum bankers, or pore over ledgers with an abacus-given that they were simultaneously trying to run the tattered Empire after all-they were now employing my partner and me. The Censors needed to identify cases where they could clamp down. No emperor wants to be accused of cruelty. Somebody had to spot the cheats who could be reassessed without causing an outcry, so Falco & Partner had been hired-at my own suggestion and on an extremely attractive fee basis-to investigate low declarations.