Long Arm of the Law

The Rome of the Vespasian’s time may be ancient to us, but it’s home to Marcus Didius Falco, the emperor’s informer and hero of “Time to Depart,” the seventh book in this series by Lindsey Davis.

The departure in the title is that of Balbinus Pius, the godfather of Rome’s underworld. Convicted of a capital crime, he is given “time to depart” under law to escape execution. Return to the city would mean death.

Shortly thereafter, the city is hit with a number of grandiose crimes: a market is emptied of valuable goods, the gold sellers are robbed in daylight, and, worst of all, men connected with Balbinus’ trial are found tortured and killed. Falco finds himself in the center of these troubles in a number of ways. The goods he bought overseas on behalf of his father were among the stolen goods, and his best friend, Petronius Longus, was the officer who put away Balbinus. On behalf of the emperor, he must help his Petro determine who is seeking to replace Balbinus, as well as secretly determine who in the empire’s version of a police force, may be on the take.

Falco is also troubled by domestic matters when he finds that his lover, the daughter of a Senator who cannot marry him under law, is pregnant. Apart from the legal troubles – which, irritatingly, are neither resolved nor turn out as threatening as Falco thought – he also needs to find a home, both for his expanding family and a mongrel dog determined to join them.

One of the pleasures of visiting a historical world is in seeing just how different it is from our day. The world of ancient Rome did not have autos or phones, windows or locks on doors. A high-rise meant a five-story building. You didn’t walk down certain streets, especially after night, or you had a retinue of club-wielding slaves that you hope will protect you when needed. Family links were not just optional, but vital, even when its members were undesirable (and Falco’s extended family provide him with a great source of frustration, from his nee-do-well father to his lazy brothers-in-law). Graft, prostitution, murder, influence peddling and organized crime are not modern inventions by any means, but in a world measured on the human scale, these take on an intimate, almost claustrophobic quality. Falco’s world is smaller than ours, who can live in one city and drive to another to work, and “Time to Depart,” for all its grand scope, is also an intimate novel.

It’s also a longer novel than needed. When the crime wave breaks out and no suitable candidates for the role of instigator offered, it becomes apparent what’s going on, and suspicions are confirmed after about 275 long pages. After that, events pick up speed, and the resolution of most of these threads are efficiently weaved in the book’s remaining 125 pages, concluding with a wedding (not Falco’s) which will either leave you shaking your head at the licentiousness of ancient Romans, or remind you of the receptions you attended.