The Jupiter Myth - Lindsey Davis

The Jupiter Myth is the 14th in this very long running Roman detective series, and remarkably, I think it's one of the best. Surely Davis has got to start letting standards slip soon? I mean, 14th in a series? Usually I'd run away screaming from such an obviously over-milked cash cow...

The Jupiter Myth picks up right after A Body In The Bath House, with our now respectable Falco and Helena stopping in Londinium for a few days to visit Helena's important relatives. Her uncle, Flavius Hilaris, whom we know from much earlier in the series, is the procurator of finance for Britain, and the only man in the Empire who thought Falco and Helena should be together.

As is usual for Falco, things go wrong immediately. The exile from his previous case never made it to Gaul; he has been found dead, in a well. As a henchman of King Togidubnus, his death is a diplomatic problem. Falco finding him is part of the problem. Worse, solving this murder uncovers, naturally, a wider web of corruption, both civil and military. Oh, and Maia and Petro are feuding, Maia is attracting dodgy men again, Helena is picking up strays, Falco can't get a decent meal or a find a decent bath-house, and the weather is bad.

London and gangsters, it's a classic setting. Throw it back to AD 75 and it's still good - although I do feel that this read as too self-consciously modern. The Falco series has never pretended to be rigourously historical; it's unashamedly hard-boiled crime fiction transplanted to ancient Rome. Still, this volume sometimes reads as very contemporary, and without the familiarity and colour of Rome, some of the characteristic atmosphere is lost. However, this minor problem is more than made up for by the rest of the novel. The plotting is pretty decent, though it does rely on a slightly creaky central conceit relating to the title, but where Davis really scores with this is taking her vast cast of characters, and previous plot threads, and pulling them altogether.

Pretty soon the murder plot has sprouted complications, and with the addition of a few old friends, an old girlfriend, a new romance or two, some old enemies and corrupt legions we have the makings of a hugely enjoyable book. One which climaxes with a marvellous, if slightly unbelievable, set piece in an arena, featuring a chariot racing bear...

This is a much darker effort than many of the Falco novels; for much of the book the states, both political and personal, are high. People get hurt, people die. Relationships, the core of this soap opera-ish (in a good way) series, are changed. The Jupiter Myth is much more successful than, say, An Ode To A Banker, as a result. The feeling of mean streets is back, with Falco being in real peril, and really hurting from the plot developments. The difference is that hard-man Falco is no longer on his own; he has attachments now. That gives him weaknesses...

The darker tone isn't to say that the trademark humour isn't still there; the dialogue is as tight as ever, with the world-weary, sarcastic pairing of Falco and Petro only too aware of all of any irony in their situations, however desperate... and yes, now and again Falco's asides on his newest problems slip into slight corniness, but that's something I like in a hard-boiled detective!

"If there's one thing I enjoy, it's being stuck up a blind alley in a grim province on a gloomy evening, while an unknown number of the military prepare to disembowel me." Okay, okay, so he's also kind to small children and bees in trouble, but that line sums up much of what I read Falco for.

If you are going to read the 14th in a series, you obviously like that series, and probably just need reassured that the quality hasn't slipped. Having me tell you that The Jupiter Myth is great is probably completely unnecessary, but I'm going to do it anyway. The Jupiter Myth is great.

Posted: Sun - August 10, 2003 at 12:06 AM