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One Virgin Too Many    by Lindsey Davis order for
One Virgin Too Many
by Lindsey Davis
Order:  USA  Can
Arrow, 2000 (1999)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The inimitable Falco is back and he's mired in the usual mess of family troubles. Of course, his family lives in the Rome of the pragmatic Emperor Vespasian. And this time it's not only his own relatives who need Falco's assistance, but also his patrician in-laws and the extremely dysfunctional (and disagreeable) kin of an influential ex-priest of Jupiter.

Falco's favorite sister Maia has just found out that her wastrel husband was eaten by lions (the second meal in Two for the Lions) and his niece Cloelia has been entered by her deceased dad in the Vestal Virgin lottery. Helena's brother Aelianus has stumbled over a corpse while under consideration for candidacy with the venerable Arval Brothers at their Sacred Grove. And the one voted most likely to become the newest Vestal, a six year old mite called Maia has disappeared after demanding Falco's help.

It seems that Didius Falco has joined the temple set himself. As a new father he has reluctantly accepted a step up to the middle ranks in the position of ... wait for it ... Procurator of the Sacred Poultry - dubbed Flunkey for Feathers by his loving wife Helena. The honor was granted by Vespasian as a reward for Falco's prior duties as Census tax fraud investigator, and it gives Davis great scope for her usual humor and witticisms.

Which leads me to what I particularly enjoy about the series. Davis does not treat her ancient Roman setting with due awe and respect. She heads down its rankest streets, dodging buckets of slops in an exercise of empathy and wry humor. Davis entertains and does so consistently. The 11th story in this series, One Virgin Too Many is as good a read as our first encounter with Falco's Rome in The Silver Pigs. Davis keeps them fresh by developing Falco's relationships with friends and family, moving him around the Empire (in previous novels) and raising his position slowly from the dregs of Roman society. And she always finds an interesting new aspect of history to focus on - though moving from lions in the Roman Arena to sacred geese on the Capitol does seem to be heading from the sublime to the ridiculous even for Davis.

In this case it's the murky rituals of the priesthood that enjoys the author's mildly cynical attention. She bases this plot on the dark effects of childhood in a priestly home, with parents bound by detailed rituals and restrictions on normal daily activities. And she takes a hilarious look at the sacred Vestal Virgins themselves, from their befuddled Senior to the attractive and amorous young Constantia.

My only complaint about One Virgin Too Many is that the strong willed Helena has only a minor role in it, and it's not because she's too busy with motherhood as little Julia gets passed around family members like a small parcel. This time Helena was edged to the side of the stage by Davis' development of some of the minor characters and their relationships. My guess is that she's setting the scene to surprise poor Falco with some family weddings.

Like all the rest of Falco's fans, I hope he continues to lead a long and eventful life and to illuminate many more dark and scurrilous corners of the Roman Empire. I expect that my wish will be granted as Lindsey Davis obviously has as much fun writing these stories as we do reading them.

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