Last Act in Palmyra, by Lindsey Davis

The historical mystery is a challenging genre, calling for a lot of research, as well as a judicious balance between authenticity and audience sympathy (which can be difficult to sustain due to differences in societal attitudes).

Male heroes written by female authors are another kind of challenge. Lindsey Davis takes on both in her Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, set in the 1st Century Roman Empire.

My opinion, based on reading Last Act in Palmyra, is that she succeeds pretty well in the first challenge, not so well in the second.

Marcus Didius Falco, the hero of the series, is a Roman “informant,” who often gathers information for the emperor or patricians, but his social status is low. Nevertheless, he is living with the daughter of a Roman senator, named Helena Justina. In this book he is hired by a Roman entertainment manager to go east (to the “region of the Decapolis” which you may remember from the Gospels) to retrieve a female water organist who has run off with a prince. Helena Justina comes along. In the city of Gerasa, Falco discovers the drowned body of a playwright. He is swiftly expelled from the city, and he and Helena join the late playwright’s theatrical troupe (along with the Nabatean priest who has been sent to ride herd on them). Other members of the acting company get murdered, and Falco and Helena set their minds to identifying the murderer, as they make a circuit of the towns of the Decapolis, always on the lookout for the missing organist as well.

The story is well-plotted, and well-researched (so far as I can tell. It’s hardly my period). There’s also considerable comedy in the way the story begins to mirror hackneyed plot elements in the Greek farces the troupe performs. The finale provides a clever twist on those plots.

And yet I wasn’t happy with the book. I’ve hinted at the problem already. I didn’t buy Marcus Didius Falco as a character.

I’ve heard other people say the same thing, so it’s not just my sexism talking—female writers often have a hard time portraying realistic male characters (for all I know, male writers have the same problems with female characters. I don’t even want to know how well I do in that department). The most successful male detectives created by female writers have been somewhat fussy and effete characters like Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. (Brother Cadfael seems to me an outstanding exception, and I give the late Ellis Peters [Edith Pargeter] full praise for the achievement.)

Last Act in Palmyra opens with Falco, Helena and the entertainment manager (a woman) meeting in the Circus of Nero during a rehearsal. During this entire scene, all the jokes are on Falco. Helena and the manager tease him about his intelligence, his virility and his business success (or lack thereof). He takes it all without any resentment, as if it’s only right, so I immediately marked him down as totally emasculated.

Then all of a sudden there’s a threat, and Falco becomes the Man of Action. He is relentless in protecting his girlfriend and hunting down the enemy. He is offended by murder, and will not give up until justice is done.

Where did this guy come from?
I asked myself.

Davis doesn’t seem to get the way a man thinks. She wants a hero who’ll meekly take all kinds of abuse from his woman, but become a lion when she needs a lion.

It doesn’t work that way in the real world. You can have one or the other, but not both.

Women will enjoy this book, I think.

There’s violence, but it’s not graphic, and sex talk, but not terribly smutty. Christians aren’t spoken of very highly, but (for a change) they’re not painted as hypocrites either. In any case they don’t come into the story much.

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