Pandora’s Boy is the sixth in Lindsey Davis’ mystery series set in ancient Rome, featuring private investigator Flavia Albia. Flavia is a British orphan adopted by Marcus Didius Falco, the protagonist of Davis’ previous series, and she has followed in her father’s footsteps. It is 89 CE, during the reign of the tyrannical emperor Domitian. Flavia is newly married to the magistrate Tiberius Manlius Faustus, who is recovering after being struck by lightning at their wedding. In the previous volume, The Third Nero, Flavia had nursed her husband back to health, but she is still concerned that he has not completely recovered.
Tiberius’ ex-wife, Laia Gratiana, comes to Flavia with a case she wants her to investigate: a young girl, Clodia Volumnia, the daughter of a well-to-do-family, has died in mysterious circumstances. Flavia and Laia hate each other, and at first Flavia does not want to take the case, but then Tiberius disappears, and Flavia is afraid he suffered memory loss after the lightning strike and wandered off somewhere. She takes the case after all, hoping to find her husband. Soon she finds him, going incognito as an assistant to a lettuce-seller. This does not surprise Flavia, since Tiberius often goes around Rome in disguise to help her with her cases. He is hoping to hear what people are saying about Clodia Volumnia’s death.
Flavia meets with Clodia’s family, and finds that the girl’s parents are about to divorce because the family is so deeply divided over what caused her death. Clodia’s father thinks his daughter, who was in love with Numerius, a young man her family considered unsuitable, died after drinking a love potion supplied by the herbalist Pandora. Clodia’s mother insists there was no love potion, and that her daughter died of a broken heart after Numerius broke off the relationship. The two grandmothers each sided with their own children and have gotten into a fight, in which a slave, who intervened, has broken his arm. After talking with Clodia’s so-called friends, Flavia realizes they were no friends to her. They are a group of spoiled, self-centered young people, all older than Clodia, who spend their lives drinking, having casual sex, and playing practical jokes. They are all friends of Clodia’s older brother, who has joined the army and is stationed in Africa, and they considered Clodia an annoying hanger-on. Clodia’s boyfriend, Numerius, never cared much for her and has several other girlfriends, and it turns out that, shortly before her death, Clodia had fallen in love with Vincentius, the handsome grandson of Pandora the herbalist (the “Pandora’s Boy” of the title).
As Flavia investigates the family of Pandora and Vincentius, she discovers that Pandora is more than just an herbalist, and that she is involved with witchcraft, which is illegal in Rome. Pandora belongs to an organized crime family which Flavia has been trying to bring down for a while, and Vincentius is being trained as a lawyer so he can defend his family in court if he needs to. Could Clodia have been the victim of gang warfare between Vincentius’ family and another crime family? As Flavia comes closer to the truth, her own life is endangered, and then a friend of Falco’s, who has been helping her in her investigations, is murdered. Flavia realizes she must find the killer before she becomes the next victim.
Pandora’s Boy is very suspenseful, with the plot taking many twists and turns. Lindsey Davis knows the details of life in ancient Rome extremely well. Each book in the Flavia Albia series takes place in a different neighborhood in Rome, and each focuses on different aspects of Roman life. Pandora’s Boy is excellent in its details of the lives of young people, crime families and gang warfare, and witchcraft. Flavia is a wonderful character, with much of Falco’s dry wit and sarcasm, even though she is a more solitary person than her father. She and her husband, Tiberius, often bounce ideas off of each other, and they work very well as a team. Falco makes a brief appearance in this book, after being on the sidelines in previous volumes. He and Flavia quarrel after Falco’s friend is murdered while helping Flavia, but they soon make up again. I am looking forward to many more adventures of Flavia Albia.
Pandora's Boy is available from the Browsing Collection of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.