31 December, 2011

Alexandria, by Lindsey Davis. Book review

Arrow, 2010. ISBN 978-0-099-51562-3. 355 pages.

Set in Alexandria in Egypt in 77 AD, Alexandria is the nineteenth Marcus Didius Falco historical mystery. Heron of Alexandria, inventor of ingenious machines, is a historical figure with a cameo role. All the main characters are fictional.

Marcus Didius Falco, Roman informer and investigator, is on holiday in Alexandria with his wife Helena Justina, their two small children and adopted teenage daughter, intending to see two of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids at Giza and the Pharos (lighthouse) at Alexandria. When the head of the Great Library is found dead in a room locked from the outside, the day after being a dinner guest of Falco’s family, Falco is called on to investigate. Soon Falco finds himself dealing with academic rivalries, fraud, arson and a man-eating crocodile – not quite the relaxing holiday he had in mind.

I’m a long-standing fan of the Falco series (for a review of the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, see earlier post). Alexandria seemed to me to fall somewhat short of the standard set by the earlier books. Historical background comes in chunks like excerpts from a travel guide or historical textbook inserted into the text. In a way this is appropriate, since Falco and his family really are tourists in Alexandria and might be expected to read bits out of a tourist guide to the city, and sometimes it has a comic effect, as with Helena’s impromptu lecture on the hydraulic fire pump. However, I mostly found it clumsy. The central mystery is resolved, but I found the solution an anticlimax.

On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable romp through the Great Library and Museion of Alexandria, one of the great centres of learning of the world, in the company of Falco’s eccentric family and a cast of colourful misfits. Falco himself still has the world-weary, cynical humour that was such a feature of the earlier novels, and seeing him as a family man with Helena and their two small daughters shows up his soft side. Helena is a cool, steadying presence, though she has relatively little to do here. She and Falco are plainly as much in love as ever, which is saying something after 19 books’ worth of adventures. Falco’s disreputable father turns up on his usual quest for a dodgy deal, this time in collusion with an equally disreputable uncle, the uncle’s live-in boyfriend and Thalia, the tough snake-charming exotic dancer and businesswoman who first appeared in Venus in Copper.

The secondary characters are at least as much fun. Among the academic staff of the Museion we meet the handsome Zoo Keeper, convinced of his irresistible attractiveness to women, the over-promoted Director who makes the lives of his staff a misery, the taciturn astronomer, the blustering law professor and the soapy Head of Philosophy intent on smarming his way up the greasy pole. All of them are after the now-vacant Librarian’s job, and to complicate matters further, two of them are also after the same woman.

The historical mathematician and inventor Heron of Alexandria, inventor of an early steam engine and the first known vending machine, has a charming cameo role, and a reclusive scholar at the Library turns out to be compiling a book that looks remarkably like a forerunner of the medieval bestiaries. Some splendid set-piece action sequences make full use of the setting, including a man-eating crocodile at the Zoo and a chase up the tower of the Pharos. (In a mystery/adventure novel set in a city with the highest lighthouse in the known world, it would be surprising if the characters didn’t get to the top of it in some dramatic fashion...)

A street plan at the front of the book – conjectural, since earthquakes and coastline change have obliterated most of first-century Alexandria – is helpful for following the action through the streets. A character list at the front, with the trademark irreverent asides, may help readers keep track of the cast. There is no author’s note, which I thought rather a shame as I would have liked to know if there were other historical cameos besides Heron and his experimental steam engine.

Entertaining historical mystery featuring the cynical Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco, set against the exotic backdrop of first-century Alexandria. An enjoyable and amusing read, if not quite up to the earlier Falco novels.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I've been reading some Terry Pratchett and my first thought was: that library needs an orang utan as Librarian. No more squabbles between greasy philosophers and directors with entitlement issues. Oook. :)

Happy New Year.

Carla said...

What a great idea! The orang-utan Librarian would certainly have sorted out all the issues (up to and probably including the man-eating crocodile) in five minutes flat :-) Oook. And then Falco would have got his relaxing holiday, too.

Happy New Year to you.

Marg said...

I have read the first three books in this series and really enjoyed them, but haven't managed to pick one up for ages! Thanks for this reminder about the series.

Carla said...

Marg - this one feels a little below par (so probably not the best place to start), however I've read several beyond the first three and they were all excellent. Definitely worth revisiting Falco - though possibly not in Alexandria :-)

Rick said...

Belated note that I had not realized that Hero(n) of Alexandria was contemporary with the Falco stories!

Rick said...

Checking follow-up box!

Carla said...

I have a vague recollection that Heron gets a mention in one of the earlier Falco books, but I don't think I'd realised he was contemporary until he turned up here.