In ancient Rome, Flavia Albia, a British orphan adopted by Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, continues in her adopted father’s profession as a private investigator, in this fifth novel in Lindsey Davis’s new mystery series. The paranoid emperor Domitian is terrified of plots against him. After putting down a revolt in Germany, he has had several provincial governors executed. A palace official asks Flavia to interview the widows of two of the executed governors, to find out how deeply their husbands were involved in the plot. Flavia hates Domitian, but she needs the money. Her new husband, Tiberius Manlius Faustus, is recovering after being struck by lightning on their wedding day, and he is not the same as he was. Since he cannot carry out his duties as an aedile, Flavia is the only support of the family.
Her investigations uncover ties between the executed governors and a man from Parthia who is pretending to be the emperor Nero—the third man to make such a claim since Domitian took the throne. The false Nero is brought to Rome, but he is murdered in his prison cell before Flavia can question him. Soon she discovers that a high official at the palace was behind the false Nero, and arranged for his murder before he could be exposed as a fake. But who is the traitor? Could it be Flavia’s employer, or a rival official who is an expert on Parthia? Or the palace spymaster? Flavia uncovers a conspiracy involving the Parthian envoy, a rogue agent, and the agent’s girlfriend. The Parthians are planning to set up another false Nero before Domitian returns from the provinces. How will Flavia foil the plot?
The Third Nero is very suspenseful, as are all of Davis’s novels, and you learn much about the court intrigues of imperial Rome. As Davis explains, there really were several men who pretended to be Nero. Besides the mystery plot, there is much in this novel about Flavia’s domestic life as she nurses her husband back to health and struggles to find reliable household staff. Her husband’s slave, Dromo, is loyal but not very intelligent, and the cook and housekeeper hate each other. The domestic drama is just as compelling as the palace intrigues. There is also a great character named Perella, a dancer turned assassin, who I hope will reappear. It sounds like Perella first appeared in one of the novels in the Falco series, since she’s an old acquaintance of Falco’s, but it must have been one I haven’t read yet. I look forward to reading Flavia’s next adventure.
The Third Nero can be borrowed from the Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library's Recreational Reading collection.