|Marcus Didius Falco welcomes Aurelia Marcella to the world of Roman sleuthdom! This second of a series has me searching the local bookshops for the previous volume. Lindsey Davis began her series with Silver Pigs set in what is present day Cornwall where Falco met the senator’s daughter, Helena, who came to figure so prominently in his life. Had he ventured up to the region now known as York, he might have stayed at the inn run by Aurelia Marcella and her sister Albia, centurion’s daughters who left sunny Italia for chilly Britannia.
The feast of Saturnalia is upon them and Aurelia and her staff look forward to celebrating the holidays with no guests. While decorating their hall they find that mistletoe is mixed in with the greenery. This Druidic plant bodes ill for their festivities as shortly afterward their brother appears mysteriously in the dead of night bidding them tell no one of his visit; a local hunter stops to warn them of a roving gang causing mischief and destruction in the area; and the aunt and uncle of the provincial governor descend with servants, demands, and looking for a quarrel.
All her plans of a restful time are gone as Aurelia must stifle her own wishes and tend to the contentious guests. Her sister Albia will soon marry and this was to be times for the siblings to make plans for the nuptials but as the guests are of senatorial rank all other plans are set aside. The couple seek their missing elder son who wrote that he had found the girl of his dreams here far away from either Londinium or Rome and has renounced his duties and responsibilities as heir. Determined to force him to do her will and marry the girl she chose for him, the Roman matron has brought her gravely ill husband into the miserable weather to shame her wayward son to acquiesce. As paterfamilias the ailing man holds much power and a sizeable fortune and hopes he can taught his son into returning to his duties. Yet his harpy mother is most fearsome.
Accompanying the party is the family lawyer, a distant kinsman who is there to make the threat of disinheritance real. The second son is also there and he hopes to gain the hand of one of the family slaves who has his heart. His father can grant her freedom at his death or hand her over to another, in this case, the lawyer. A handsome Greek physician tends to the sick man and soon has most of the female hearts in the vicinity aflutter. Then there is the “Weasel” a vile, toady slave of the family who lords it over everyone around. He casts fond looks at the same female slave the younger brother covets.
Aurelia soon finds herself thoroughly involved in the family’s affairs far more than is normal for an innkeeper. Then her paramour arrives escorting the woman chosen to marry the wayward son and he seems to have forgotten all they once meant to each other. But when she is kidnapped and held for ransom by the roving gang who want a share of the senator’s fortune, he comes to her aid and explains his behavior. The missing son is discovered hiding in plain sight but that doesn’t make the situation any easier for Aurelia, especially when the senator is murdered at a Saturnalia fest.
When all is eventually sorted and whodunit revealed the story doesn’t quite work out but Finnis’s characters, setting and authenticity more than make up for a few holes in the plot. Let us hope that she continues to write such wonderful tales as I look forward to reading them.