There is no writer about ancient Rome during the NT period who is more fun to read than Lindsey Davis. Unfortunately, she chose to retire her very best character Marcus Didius Falco, who, truth be told, was getting a little long in the tooth, as they say. He has been succeeded by his adopted daughter Flavia Alba as sleuth extraordinaire, and has not appeared ‘on stage’, which is to say, in the actual narrative of the Alba novels, which are also enjoyable (see the reviews on this blog). But finally, we do run across Mssr. Falco once again in the short story (86 pages, available very cheaply on Kindle) ‘The Spook who Spoke– Again’. The title is a reference to a play that Falco wrote in the novel ‘Last Act in Palmyra’ entitled ‘The Spook that Spoke’. This novella involves a production of that play, only this time in Rome, and put on by Thalia’s troop of actors. Thalia, is an animal tamer with a remarkable act she does with a Python, her ‘main squeeze’ so to speak, though she has had various liasons with men en route as she has wandered about the world with her traveling circus. One such liason was with the Father of Falco, no less, Geminus by name. So it was that Falco, when Geminus expired leaving behind an unborn offspring, had adopted the little boy who is named Marcus Didius Alexander Postumus, the last bit being the origin of the word posthumous. In its original context it refers to a person who is born after his father has expired.
In our story, ‘Scruff’ as Falco has called him, has decided he would try life with his real mother, Thalia, and live in a tent along side of the menagerie of animals and circus and play performers. Never a dull moment in that life. The lad, who is 12, has the smarts of his parents, BUT he only has the experience of a 12 year old, and so a good deal of the humor in the story has to do with him thinking he is very clever and smart, but, for example, he doesn’t even know what the word libido means, nor is he clear about the birds and the bees either. The story begins sadly when Ferret (the aptly named pet of Postumus) goes missing, presumed eaten by the python Jason. I will not spoil the story for you except to say it is one part hilarious farce ala the Marx brothers, and one part Shakesperean melodrama/comedy (including the retreading of the famous line ‘exeunt, pursued by… in this case a lion’; a line stolen from Act 3 of the Winter’s Tale where Antigonus has to exit pursued by a bear).
This story is vintage Davis, and is even more humorous as it is told through the eyes of Postumus, who clearly has much to learn, and creates havoc, mostly unintentionally, wherever he goes. No wonder Falco and his wife Helena Justina were prepared to let him go live with his biological Mom…..
I do wish we had more of this kind of historical fiction, or better said hysterical fiction…. but we must be content that once again the Spook which haunted Palmyra, cleared his wrote and spoke…. again.