I have now read five of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries by Lindsey Davis, and it’s definitely like eating peanuts: you always end up wanting more. Davis has a a vast, detailed knowledge of the ancient world, and she uses it to create the backdrops for her lively, captivating books. Of course you have to have engaging characters, too, and she’s good at this as well.
Marcus Didius Falco is an informer in the time of Vespasian, not just a rat as the title might imply, but a kind of freelance imperial agent. In the first book he works as a slave in a silver mine in Britain to expose a plot against the emperor. In the second he rescues the grain fleet bringing wheat from Egypt to Rome. In another book, body parts start turning up in the water supply and he has to check out all the aqueducts.
He has a wonderful girlfriend named Helena Justina, whom he can’t marry (yet) because she’s a senator’s daughter and he doesn’t have enough money. He lives in a six-story walk-up above a laundry.
These books are a bit like the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. We find that someone’s been murdered, but the response is: So what? We have to have a reason to find the murderer. My one quibble with Peters and Davis is that the characters are just a bit too lovable; I think if you had true to life characters from these historical periods, they would gross us out. Still, that doesn’t stop me from gobbling them up eagerly.
Davis has also written an excellent novel about Vespasian and his wife called The Course of Honor.