Desperate Undertaking

Written by Lindsey Davis

Review written by Carole Tyrell

Carole Tyrrell worked in the theatre for nearly 10 years and was always fascinating by the way death and the supernatural formed many of the greatest and most enduring works. She has read crime fiction for many years and enjoys the broad range of the genre.

Desperate Undertaking
Hodder and Stoughton
RRP: £20
Released: April 2 2022

A dying woman’s last words are that ‘the undertaker did it!’ Immediately Flavia Albia is intrigued and bemused.  Is a Roman undertaker having to resort to murderous means to drum up trade? But Phrygia, the dying woman, is not the first gruesome and bloody death that Flavia has seen that morning.  Chremes, Phrygia’s husband, has been found, crucified, in Domitian’s stadium.  She went out to find him after he went missing.  A fake play notice that mentioned his next performance had been seen and he was curious to find out more.  It’s December in Rome and the annual feast of Saturnalia meant that the stadium doors were left unlocked.  Phrygia was also lured to her monstrously cruel death.

An old acquaintance, Davos, eager to solve the brutal deaths, comes to find Falco but he and his wife Helena, are away from Rome on holiday.  So, Flavia adroitly takes the case and begins her investigations.  It’s soon apparent that the murderer has a grudge against actors and carefully plans his acts.  Both victims were managers of a successful theatre company, and the murders are horrible re-enactments of brutal scenes in classic plays.  There were meticulously planned and designed for maximum effect on the people who see them.

She begins to look into the theatre company and their hangers-on, the Farcicals.  But, as more fake playbills appear announcing solo performances of selected scenes from other dramas and Flavia sees their bloody carnage, she becomes even more determined to find the murderer and stop them. And then they come closer to home……

Flavia knows that she is an outsider as well as being a woman in the misogynistic society of ancient Rome despite being married to a magistrate. However, it also protects her as she is ignored.  Although she is recognised as Falco’s adopted daughter, she is also known as ‘the crazy British one, the bloody rude one.’

Although this is the first Flavia Albia novel that I’ve read, I felt immediately immersed in her world.  The hierarchy of ancient Rome, its crowded jostling streets with everyone out to make a living or to rise higher.  She has a sardonic wit and can comment drily on events and her world.  She is also shrewd as she comments on Chremes and Phrygia’s landlord eyeing up their saddlebags of money and wanting to take his share and so realising that he could be helpful to her at a price. 

I was gripped by the smells and sights of the city while bearing in mind Flavia’s comment that ‘Rome might be the hub of civilisation, but it had done this through butcher generals scrambling through blood.’  There was a lot of historical background, but it was done in a conversational way as if Flavia was taking the reader by the hand as she went about the streets on her daily routine, indicating places of interest as she asked questions.  I liked her a lot.

There was quite a cast of characters with their different backgrounds and ambitions, but I could see that the author was in full control of them and I, as a newbie to Flavia’s world, soon worked out who was who.  One of the most atmospheric scenes for me was the cremation and interment of Phrygia and Chremes at the roadside necropolis in cold, damp weather. The mourners gathered to pay their last respects little knowing what lay in store for one of them.  And that they would soon be gathering there again. 

Desperate Undertaking was an entertaining romp through ancient Rome in the company of a very strong and memorable character who knew it inside out.   

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