Lindsey Davis,
Two for the Lions
(Warner Books, 2000)

Lindsey Davis, the British writer of an award-winning series of mystery novels set in first-century Rome, has produced another winner in her 10th book featuring her protagonist Marcus Didius Falco. Two for the Lions has won the first Ellis Peters/British Crime Writers award for a historical mystery. Fortunately for newcomers curious about these stories, each volume and be read independently of the others and enjoyed as an episode complete in itself with references to previous adventures painlessly inserted into the narrative.

It is also the reader's good fortune that Marcus Didius Falco is such an engaging character whose narrative voice is tinged with a world-weary cynicism and dry wit reminiscent of a 20th-century Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade yet still very much of his own time and place.

In Two For the Lions, Falco, previously employed as an informer for the imperial government, is now appointed by Emperor Vespasian as a tax auditor for the Census, with the scorned but useful, eccentric ex-spy Anacrites as his partner. The lanistae Calliopus and Saturninus -- keepers and trainers of teams of gladiators and wild beasts who provide entertainment in the arena for the masses -- are their immediate targets not just for assessment for taxes, but for a murder investigation. The lion Leonidas, property of Calliopus and also Emperor Vespasian's executioner, has been found dead. Chief suspect is Rumex, a famed gladiator who soon becomes a victim himself.

Meanwhile, Helena, Falco's patrician lover, must come to the aid of Justinus, her black-sheep brother who, with his fiancee Claudia, has gone exploring for the rare herb silphium (worth a fortune if found), in the Tripoli region of the coast of Africa where the lanistae buy their lions. Falco goes with Helena (a strong and vibrant character in her own right), plus their baby and a nephew to search for Justinus and his precious plant, hoping to solve a family crisis and find a killer -- a trip that reveals much about the world of gladiators and wild beasts -- and that suspensefully builds up to an exciting and surprising climax in a big showdown during the "games" in the arena itself.

Two for the Lions exemplifies Davis's successful, meticulously researched formula: a detail-rich portrait of daily life in ancient Rome as the plot unfolds, a side trip to one of the Empire's outposts and lots of beguiling banter in the Nick and Nora tradition between Falco and Helena. This book is a treat for lovers of mystery, history and entertaining yarns for it offers satisfying suspense, humor, fiendishly clever plotting and delightfully eccentric characters all springing to life in their colorfully rendered milieu -- Imperial Rome given vibrant life even as the hero goes in pursuit of a deadly foe. Two for the Lions will also serve ably as a fulfilling fix for those who adored the recent film Gladiator and can't get enough of that world!

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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