In Venus in Copper, the third book in Lindsey Davis’ popular mystery series, ancient Roman private eye Marcus Didius Falco tries to prevent a murder from happening. Severina Zotica, a copper-haired beauty, is a “professional bride” who’s been married three times. Each of her husbands has been richer than the previous one, and each has died in suspicious circumstances, leaving Severina his money. Even though many people, including the clerk of the magistrate who investigated the deaths, suspect Severina, there is no direct evidence to prove her guilt. Now she wishes to marry Hortensius Novus, a freed slave who has made a fortune in real estate. He lives in a household with his two business partners and their wives, all former slaves of the same master, who are living a fabulously wealthy and vulgar lifestyle. The two women of the household hire Falco because they think Severina killed her first three husbands, and she will kill Novus after they’re married.
Falco sets out to gather evidence against Severina, but he’s thrown in prison on orders of the Emperor Vespasian’s chief spy, Anacrites. Falco had gotten on the wrong side of Anacrites during a previous case. When he’s released, he finds that Novus has been murdered, before the wedding. So Severina no longer has a motive, it appears, because she doesn’t stand to inherit from him. The women of Novus’ household blame Falco for not preventing Novus’ death, and he thinks he’s off the case, but Severina re-hires him, to prove her innocence. He finds there are several other suspects, including Novus’ business rival, an unscrupulous real estate developer, and his two partners, who are trying to make a deal with their rival and are afraid Novus will back out. Falco is also not entirely convinced of Severina’s innocence, even though he doesn’t know what her motive could be.
Unlike the first two books in the series, Silver Pigs and Shadows in Bronze, which focus on political conspiracies, Venus in Copper focuses on a domestic crime. You learn much about the world of real estate in ancient Rome, and all the shady deals that went on. Part of the fun of the series is to read about the developing relationship between Falco and his aristocratic girlfriend, Helena Justina. Falco is trying to get Helena to live with him, so he moves into a more expensive dwelling than his sixth-floor apartment. In the most hilarious scene in the novel, Falco tries to cook an enormous turbot, a gift from the emperor’s son Titus, on his brother’s shield, with his various relatives getting in the way, just when Helena comes along, having finally made up her mind to move in with him. Then Titus shows up to join in the feast, and shows an unwelcome interest in Helena. There are also some very funny scenes involving Severina’s foul-mouthed parrot, Chloe. Falco has taken Chloe in because he thinks she might have overheard something to do with the crime. Venus in Copper is a very entertaining addition to the Falco series.
Venus in Copper can be borrowed from the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.