Books: Alexandria

Since I enjoy both historical fiction and mysteries, a mystery set in the Roman empire sounded interesting. I had not read anything previously by Lindsey Davis, but thought Alexandria sounded interesting.

When I check it out of the library, I was more interested in the fact that the ancient library of Alexandria featured prominent, than in noticing the book was part of a series. I generally like to start those at the beginning, and Alexandria turns out to be Davis’ nineteenth novel featuring Marcus Didius Falco. (For future reference, I found someone’s list of the books in order.)A good enough series, though, is enjoyable to read even out of order. I certain enjoyed the books I read a few months ago by Julia Spencer-Fleming although I started it in the middle, read to the end, and then started back at the beginning.

I certainly like the character of Falco, an “informer” (special investigator) for the emperor Vespasian. He is Roman, and I imagine the books are usually set in Rome, but this one is set in Egypt. I’ve read historical fiction set in Egypt before, but generally much earlier in history, when Egypt was a powerful nation, rather than a province in the Roman Empire.

Davis explains on her website what she had in mind when she set the novel in Alexandria. “My challenge here was to write a book set in ancient Egypt that would have no pharaohs, few pyramids, no respect for sacred cats, hardly any details of mummification rites, no duck hunts on the Nile, no peasants, no shadoufs and no Archimedes’ screws.”

Instead there is the Great Library, one dead librarian, several men who aspire to replace him (but which one wanted the position badly enough to kill for it?), and the mystery of the missing scrolls. And an alligator.

And there is Falco’s dry humor, which is a large part of what makes the book so enjoyable. He does not take himself too seriously, or probably anyone else either. He is cynical enough to be unsurprised at the conniving, greed, pride, and selfishness which he encounters. But he also cares about doing what is right, and about his family.

The family is an odd assortment of characters, and in some ways seems quite modern. A father who left him and his mother when he was little. An eccentric uncle who lives with a good-looking younger man. An adopted teenage daughter who is sometimes very moody. Two young children who need to be entertained on long trips.

I have no idea how historically accurate his depiction of family life is, but from what I have read in reviews, Davis’ novels are well-researched and generally historically accurate. In an interview, she explains, “I see no point in writing historical novels unless you try to make them true to what we know.”

“What we know” does sometimes require reading between the lines, so to speak. In response to a question as to whether the strong women in Falco’s life echo the structure of Roman society, she explains, “Women had no legal status, so it can’t echo that. It is true to what I know of how women were perceived (i.e. scary) and how they are portrayed on, for example, tombstones, and also to what I have observed in their descendants. Italian women are still supposed to live in a patriarchal society – if you follow what men say.”

The apparent solution to the mystery of the dead librarian (it is left as conjecture, as no one can know for sure) is perhaps not the most satisfying, but there is so much more to the book than that (including, before long, two other deaths to solve). So I will happily look for more books by Davis, starting with Silver Pigs, the first in the series.

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