The Iron Hand of Mars (Marcus Didius Falco Series #4)by Lindsey Davis
A detective novel of ancient Rome.
When wild Germanic troops rebel and a Roman general disappears, Emperor Vespasian turns to the one man he can trust: Marcus Didius Falco, Imperial Rome's answer to Columbo. Slipping undercover into Germania, Falco meets with disarray, torture, and
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"A seamless blending of humor, history, and adventure." Publishers Weekly
A detective novel of ancient Rome.
When wild Germanic troops rebel and a Roman general disappears, Emperor Vespasian turns to the one man he can trust: Marcus Didius Falco, Imperial Rome's answer to Columbo. Slipping undercover into Germania, Falco meets with disarray, torture, and murder in his quest to find a Druid priestess who alone can persuade the barbarians to embrace peace.
“Seamless blending of humor, history and adventure.” Publishers Weekly
“Falco's never-ending wise cracks, humorous self-abasement, and genuine niceness are more than enough to captivate readers; the rich historical details add a caloric layer of frosting.” School Library Journal
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The Iron Hand of Mars
A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery
By Lindsey Davis
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1992 Lindsey Davis
All rights reserved.
"One thing is definite," I told Helena Justina; "I am not going to Germany!"
Immediately I could see her planning what to pack for the trip.
* * *
We were in bed at my apartment, high up on the Aventine. A real sixth-floor bughole — only most bugs grew tired of walking upstairs before they ever got this far. I passed them sometimes, flaked out on halfway landings, with droopy antennae and tired little feet ...
It was a place you could only laugh about, or the squalor would break your heart. Even the bed was rocky. And that was after I had pieced in a new leg and tightened the mattress webs.
I was trying out a new way of making love to Helena, which I had devised in the interests of not letting our relationship go stale. I had known her a year, let her seduce me after six months of thinking about it, and had finally managed to persuade her to live with me about two weeks ago. According to my previous experience of women, I must be right on target to be told I drank too much and slept too much, and that her mother needed her urgently back at home.
My athletic efforts at holding her interest had not gone unnoticed. "Didius Falco ... wherever did you ... learn this trick?"
"Invented it myself ..."
Helena was a senator's daughter. Expecting her to put up with my filthy lifestyle for more than a fortnight had to be pushing my luck. Only a fool would view her fling with me as anything more than a bit of local excitement before she married some pot-bellied pullet in patrician stripes who could offer her emerald pendants and a summer villa at Surrentum.
As for me, I worshipped her. But then I was the fool who kept hoping the fling could be made to last.
"You're not enjoying yourself." As a private informer, my powers of deduction were just about adequate.
"I don't think ..." Helena gasped, "this is going to work!"
"Why not?" I could see several reasons. I had cramp in my left calf, a sharp pain under one kidney, and my enthusiasm was flagging like a slave kept indoors on a festival holiday.
"One of us," suggested Helena, "is bound to laugh."
"It looked all right as a rough sketch on the back of an old rooftile."
"Like pickling eggs. The recipe seems easy, but the results are disappointing ..."
I replied that we were not in the kitchen, so Helena asked demurely whether I thought it would help if we were. Since my Aventine doss lacked that amenity altogether, I treated her question as rhetorical.
We both laughed, if it's of interest.
Then I unwound us, and made love to Helena the way both of us liked best.
* * *
"Anyway, Marcus, how do you know the Emperor wants to send you to Germany?"
"Nasty rumour flitting round the Palatine."
We were still in bed. After my last case had staggered to what passed for its conclusion, I had promised myself a week of domestic relaxation — due to a dearth of new commissions, there were plenty of gaps in the schedule of my working life. In fact, I had no cases at all. I could stay in bed all day if I wanted to. Most days I did.
"So ..." Helena was a persistent type. "... You have been making enquiries then?"
"Enough to know some other mug can take on the Emperor's mission."
Since I did sometimes undertake shady activity for Vespasian, I had been up to the Palace to investigate my chances of earning a corrupt denarius from him. Before presenting myself in the throne room, I had taken the precaution of sniffing round the back corridors first. A wise move: a well-timed exchange with an old crony called Momus had sent me scurrying home.
"Much work on, Momus?" I had asked.
"Chicken-feed. I hear your name is down for the German trip?" was the reply (with a mocking laugh that told me it was something to dodge).
"What trip is that?"
"Just your sort of disaster," Momus had grinned. "Something about investigating the Fourteenth Gemina ..."
That was when I had pulled my cloak round my ears and scarpered — before anyone could inform me officially. I knew enough about the XIV Legion to put quite a lot of effort into avoiding closer contact, and without going into painful history, there was no reason why those swaggering braggarts should welcome a visit from me.
* * *
"Has the Emperor actually spoken to you?" insisted my beloved.
"Helena, I won't let him. I'd hate to cause offence by turning down his wonderful offer ..."
"Life would be much more straightforward if you just let him ask you, and then simply said no!"
I gave her a smirk that said women (even clever, well-educated daughters of senators) could never understand the subtleties of politics — to which she replied with a two-handed shove that sent me sprawling out of bed. "We need to eat, Marcus. Go and find some work!"
"What are you going to do?"
"Paint my face for a couple of hours, in case my lover calls."
"Oh, right! I'll go, and leave him a clear field ..."
We were joking about the lover. Well, I hoped we were.CHAPTER 2
In the Forum, life was proceeding much as normal. It was panic season for lawyers. The last day of August is also the last day to bring new cases before the winter recess, so the Basilica Julia was humming. We had reached the Nones of September and most barristers — still rosy from their holidays at Baiae — were scurrying to settle a few hasty cases to justify their social standing before the courts closed. They had the usual noisy touts out all round the Rostrum, offering bribes for cheerleaders to rush into the Basilica and barrack the opposition. I shouldered them aside.
In the shadow of the Palatine, a sedate procession of functionaries from one of the priestly colleges was following an elderly white-robed Virgin into the Vestals' House. She glanced about with the truculence of a loopy old lady who has men who should know better being respectful to her all day. Meanwhile, on the steps of the Temples of Saturn and Castor lounged throngs of sex-crazed idlers, eyeing up anything (not only female) that looked worth whistling at. An extremely angry aedile was ordering his heavy mob to move on a drunk who had had the bad judgement to pass out on the pavement sundial at the base of the Golden Milestone. It was still summer weather. There was a strong smell of hot donkey droppings everywhere.
Just lately I had been sizing up a piece of wall on the Tabularium. Having come armed with a sponge, a few deft strokes soon washed off the electioneering puff that was besmirching the antique stonework, (Supported by the Manicure Girls at the Agrippan Baths ... the usual sophisticated candidate). Deleting his offensive rubbish from our architectural heritage left a good space, just at eye-level, for me to chalk up graffiti of my own:
For All Discreet Enquiries + Legal Or Domestic Good Refs + Cheap Rates At Eagle Laundry Fountain Court
I knew what it was likely to bring in: shifty import clerks who wanted financial health checks on rich widows they were cultivating, or corner-shop barmen who were worried about missing girls.
The clerks never pay up, but barmen can be useful. A private informer can spend weeks looking for lost women, then, when he gets tired of putting his feet in wineshops (if ever), he only has to point out to the client that missing waitresses are generally found with their heads bashed in, hidden under their boyfriends' floorboards at home. This generally gets the bills for surveillance paid ultra-promptly, and sometimes the barmen even leave town for a long period afterwards — a bonus for Rome. I like to feel my work has community value.
Of course a barman can be disastrous. The girlfriend may be genuinely missing, having run off with a gladiator, so you still spend weeks searching, only to end up feeling so sorry for the dumb cluck who has lost his tawdry turtledove that you can't bring yourself to ask him for your fee ...
* * *
I went to the baths for a spot of exercise with my trainer, just in case I did manage to land myself a case which required putting myself out. Then I looked for my friend Petronius Longus. He was captain of the Aventine Watch, which involved dealing with all types, many of them the unscrupulous variety who might need my services. Petro often sent work my way, if only to avoid having to deal with tiresome characters himself.
He was not in any of his usual haunts, so I went to his house. All I found there was his wife — an unwelcome treat. Arria Silvia was a slightly built, pretty woman; she had small hands and a neat nose, with soft skin and fine eyebrows like a child's. But there was nothing soft about Silvia's character, one aspect of which was a searing opinion of me.
"How's Helena, Falco? Has she left you yet?"
"She will!" promised Silvia.
This was banter, though fairly caustic, and I treated it warily. I left a message to tell Petro I was light in the occupation stakes, then hotfooted out of it.
While I was in the area I dropped in at my mother's; Ma was out visiting. I was not in the mood for hearing my sisters bemoaning their husbands, so I gave up on my relations (not a hard decision) and went home.
A worrying scene greeted me. I had crossed the stinking alley towards Lenia's laundry, the cut-price, clothes-stealing wash-shop which occupied the ground floor of our building, when I noticed a set of tough tykes bristling with buckles who were standing about the stairwell trying to act inconspicuous. A hard task to set themselves: the battle scenes on their breastplates were polished to a dazzle that would stop a water-clock, let alone a passer-by, and ten determined children had stationed themselves in a circle to gape at their scarlet helmet plumes and dare one another to try and poke sticks between the mighty mens' bootstraps. It was the Praetorian Guard. The whole Aventine must know that they were here.
I could not remember having done anything lately that the military might object to, so I assumed an innocent saunter and kept going. These heroes were out of their own refined environment and looking pretty jumpy. I was not surprised to be stopped at the steps by two spears slamming together across my chest.
"Steady, lads, don't snag my outfit — this tunic still has a few decades of life in it ..."
A laundry girl barged out of the steam with a sneer on her face and a basket of particularly disgusting unwashed goods. The sneer was for me.
"Friends of yours?" she scoffed.
"Don't insult me! They must have been going to arrest some troublemaker and lost their way ..."
They were obviously not here to apprehend anybody. Some lucky citizen in this sordid part of society was no doubt being visited by a member of the imperial family, incognito apart from the vivid presence of his bodyguard.
"What's going on?" I asked the centurion in charge.
"Confidential — move along!"
By now I had guessed who the victim was (me) and the reason for the visitation (cajoling me into the mission in Germany Momus had warned me about). I felt full of foreboding. If the mission was so special or so urgent it demanded such personal treatment, it must involve the kind of effort I would really hate. I paused, wondering which of the Flavians was venturing his princely toes in our alley's pungent mud.
The Emperor himself, Vespasian, was too senior and too sensitive about status to make free with the populace. Besides, he was over sixty. At my house he would never manage the stairs.
I had crossed paths with his younger son, Domitian. I once exposed a piece of dirty work by the junior Caesar, which now meant that Domitian would like to see me wiped off the earth, and I felt the same about him. However, we ignored each other socially.
It must be Titus.
"Titus Caesar come to see Falco?" He was impetuous enough to do it. Letting the officer know that I despised official secrecy, I lifted apart the impressively polished spear tips with one delicate finger. "I'm Marcus Didius. Better pass me in so I can hear what joys the bureaucracy are planning for me now ..."
They let me through, though with a sarcastic look. Perhaps they had been assuming their heroic commander had lowered himself for an off-colour intrigue with some Aventine wench.
Making no attempt to hurry, since I was a fervent republican, I took myself upstairs.
* * *
When I went in, Titus was talking to Helena. I stopped short abruptly. The look I had seen the Praetorians exchange began to make more sense. I began to think I had been a fool.
Helena was sitting out on the balcony, a small affair which clung perilously to the side of our building, its old stone supports held on mainly by twenty years of grime. Although there was room for an informal type like me to share the bench with her, Titus had remained politely standing beside the folding door. Ahead of him lay a spectacular view of the great city which his father ruled, but Titus was ignoring it. In my opinion, with Helena to look at, anybody would. Titus shared my opinion pretty openly.
He was the same age as me, a curly-haired optimistic type who would never be soured by life. In my unmajestic billet here, the crusted gold palm leaves embroidering his tunic made an incongruous show, yet Titus managed not to seem out of place. He had an attractive personality and was at home wherever he went. He was pleasant, and for a top-ranker, cultured to his sandalstraps. He was an all-round political achiever: a senator, a general, Commander of the Praetorians, a benefactor of civic buildings, a patron of the arts. On top of that, he was good-looking. I had the girl (though we did not declare it in public); Titus Caesar had everything else.
When I first saw him talking to Helena, his face had a pleased, boyish expression which made my teeth set. He was leaning on the door with his arms folded, unaware that the hinges were quite likely to give way. I hoped they would. I wished they would dump Titus in his splendid purple tunic flat on his back on my ramshackle floor. In fact the moment I saw him there, in deep conversation with my girlfriend, I sank into a mood where almost any sort of treason seemed a bright idea.
"Hello, Marcus," said Helena — paying far too much attention to putting on a neutral face.CHAPTER 3
"Afternoon," I forced out.
"Marcus Didius!" The young Caesar was effortlessly agreeable. Refusing to let it fluster me, I stayed glum. "I came to commiserate about the loss of your apartment!" Titus was referring to one I had been renting just recently which had had every advantage — except that where this repulsive den somehow stayed upright in defiance of all engineering principles, the other had collapsed in a cloud of dust.
"Nice shack. Built to last," I said. "That is, to last about a week!"
Helena giggled. Which gave Titus an excuse to say, "I found Camillus Verus's daughter waiting here; I've been keeping her occupied ..." He must have known I was trying to lay claim to Helena Justina, but it suited him to pretend she was a model of modest propriety just waiting for an idle prince to pass the time of day with.
"Oh thanks!" I retorted bitterly.
Titus glanced at Helena Justina in an appreciative way that left me feeling out of things. He had always admired her, and I had always hated it. I was relieved to see that despite what she had told me, she had not painted her eyes as if she was expecting a visitor. She did look delicious, in a red dress I liked, with agates on slim gold hoops swinging from her ears and her dark hair simply twisted up in combs. She had a strong, quick-witted face, rather too self-controlled in public, though in private she would melt like honey in the warm sun. I loved it, so long as I was the only one she melted for.
"I tend to forget you two know one another!" Titus commented.
Helena stayed silent, waiting for me to tell His Caesarship just how well. I held back stubbornly. Titus was my patron; if he gave me a commission, I would do it for him properly — but no Palace playboy would ever own my private life.
"What can I do for you, sir?" With anyone else my tone would have been dangerous, but no one who enjoys existence makes threats to the Emperor's son.
"My father would like a talk, Falco."
"Are the Palace clowns on strike then? If Vespasian is short of laughs, I'll see what I can do." Two yards away, Helena's brown eyes had assumed an unforgiving steadiness.
"Thanks," Titus acknowledged easily. His suave manner always made me feel he had spotted yesterday's fish sauce spilt down my tunic. It was a feeling I deeply resented in my own house. "We have a proposition to put to you ..."
"Oh good!" I answered darkly, with a moody scowl to let him know I had been warned the proposition was dire.
He eased himself off the folding door, which lurched sickeningly but stayed upright. He made Helena a slight gesture, implying that he thought she was here to discuss business so he would not intrude. She rose politely as he strode to the door, but she left me to see him out as if I were the sole proprietor.
* * *
I came in and started fiddling with the rickety door. "Someone should tell His Honour not to lean his august person against plebeians' furniture ..." Helena remained silent. "You have on your pompous look, my darling. Was I rude?"
"I expect Titus is used to it," Helena replied levelly. I had omitted to kiss her; I knew she had noticed. I wanted to, but it was too late now. "The fact Titus is so approachable must make people forget they are talking to the Emperor's partner, a future Emperor himself."
Excerpted from The Iron Hand of Mars by Lindsey Davis. Copyright © 1992 Lindsey Davis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Lindsey Davis was born and raised in Birmingham, England. After taking an English degree at Oxford and working for the civil service for thirteen years, she "ran away to be a writer." Her internationally bestselling novels featuring ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco include Venus in Copper, Nemesis and Alexandria. She is also the author of Rebels and Traitors, set during the English Civil War. Davis is the recipient of the Crime Writers' Association Cartier Diamond Dagger Award, the highest accolade for crime writers, as well as the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award and the Authors' Club Best First Novel award.
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I started reading this series years ago but had trouble finding this book. Did find it on the internet through Barnes and Noble. This book brought the series together for me. Love all of Lindsey Davis books. Started reading the Flavia Albia follow up series, Love ancient Rome murder mysteries.
I find the plot twists interesting,as well as the day to day detail of Roman life. I wish to find books 6 through 10 for nook. Is there any release dates? Or have I missed them?
I have not read this particular book but have read many in the series. This series is a real hoot. I just love them. Start at first to fully appreciate the characters and follow the life of our hero.