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Lindsey Davis

Three hands in the fountain
Century, 1997


In 73 AD Rome, private investigator Marcus Falco shares some wine with his partner, Petronius Longus, when a worker finds the decayed hand of a human female in a nearby fountain. The sleuths see an opportunity to make a name for themselves by investigating what happened. However, the Roman bureaucratic government refuses to even acknowledge the incident for fear of rioting. Soon, a second hand suffering from less decay than the first discovery is found in another part of the aqueduct system. As the government slowly begins to look into the matter, Marcus and Petronius begin to search for an apparent serial killer, who seems ready to murder again on the date of the next festival. However, Rome's Chief Spy Anacrites plans to add to his own glory rather than allow two intruders like his enemy Marcus and his former employee Petronius solve the case. Three Hands In the Fountain, the latest Ancient Rome historical mystery starring Falco, is a superb tale that makes the city-state seem as if it exists today. The mystery is entertaining and fun. Married life seems to have calmed Falco down a bit, but he still remains a fresh sleuth. Lindsey Davis may be the top writer of ancient historical who-done-its. -Harriet Klausner

- Harriet Klausner , 11/25/2005

Anyone who has spent hot summer days traipsing around Rome welcomes the many fountains scattered around the city and their constant flow of cool water. We think of them as legacies from the ancient city, the distribution systems leading from the main aqueduct conduits to regional tanks (castella) and neighborhood fountains. After reading this story, however, you'll think before you drink. The tale has nothing to do with an ancestor of the fountain popularized in the well-known movie of a generation ago. Rather than tossing three coins into the Trevi to ensure a return to Rome, someone is putting hands and other bits of unidentified young women into the city's public water lines. This is the ninth novel featuring the informer M. Didius Falco. The series began with Silver Pigs set in 70, and we're now in August- October of 73. Many of the familiar characters are present, particularly Falco's wife Helena and their baby, his best buddy Petronius Longus (Petro), and his rival, the chief spy Anacrites. While there is no need to be familiar with the earlier stories, this continuity is an attractive feature: it allows us to live alongside Falco in the teeming imperial capital. Falco and others allude in passing to various previous escapades. Somewhat uncomfortably he recalls how he had once (in Silver Pigs) stuffed an entire corpse into the Cloaca Maxima, but that person deserved his fate, was disposed of in the main sewer line, not the incoming drinking water, and had not been dismembered. One character from Dying Light in Corduba (set earlier in 73) appears in Three Hands: Claudia Rufina, now engaged to Helena' brother Aelianus and in imminent danger of an aqueous fate because her fiance fails to be an adequate escort at the Circus Maximus games. Another strength of Davis' novels is their accuracy: readers learn all sorts of information while following Falco and his friends as they solve cases in Rome and around the Empire: mining and the spice trade in Silver Pigs, olive groves and the oil trade of Baetica in Dying Light, the art and antiquities business in Poseidon's Gold, life in army camps and frontier towns on the Rhine and in the East in The Iron Hand of Mars and Last Act in Palmyra, the mob and conditions in Ostia in Time to Depart.. This time we get the water supply of Rome clear to the aqueduct intake points high upstream of Tivoli in the Anio river, public festivals, different types of carriages and carts, and the imperial messenger-relay system (cursus publicus). Some readers will now want to jog around the Circus Maximus. Others should be inspired to visit the extensive remains of the aqueducts. The arcade that runs across the Caelian along the Via di San Stefano Rotondo and crosses the Via di San Gregorio to the Palatine within sight of the Arch of Constantine appears in the novel. I recommend an outing to the untouristed Aqueduct Park southeast of Rome and around Tivoli along the Via Valeria. Watch your step not only because the masonry is crumbling: think before you drink. Arcades were frequently unsavory places: a row of arches (fornices) gives us the word "fornication" and Petro testifies that there were 32,000 prostitutes in Rome. Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian do not appear. The only historical person in the novel is Sextus Julius Frontinus, consul in 73 and on the point of leaving to take up a three-year governorship of Britain. The aid he renders to Falco enhances the reality of the story. Frontinus was one of the most important figures of the time: consul in 73, 98, and 100 (this last time with the new emperor Trajan), the predecessor of Tacitus' father-in-law Agricola as legatus of Britain (73-77), commissioner of the water supply (97-98), and an augur. Pliny the Younger notes his recent death in 103 (Letters 4.8; cf. 9.19). He was a distinguished general and a hands-on administrator who wrote the basic treatise on the Roman aqueducts. Falco usually dislikes government officials but comes to admire both Frontinus and a member of the water department staff, Bolanus. As with Vespasian in some of the other novels (see now Course of Honours), Davis has created a convincing Frontinus; maybe we will see more of him. (Interestingly, Frontinus' son-in-law was named Falco: Q. Pompeius Falco [consul in 108].) A substory runs alongside the main plot. Petro's fondness for the ladies has gotten him in big trouble. An affair with Balbina Milvia, daughter of a man he had arrested (Time to Depart) has triple ramifications: his superiors have suspended him from his position with the Vigiles (cohort IV, region XIII), Balbina's mother Cornella Flaccida hires some thugs to teach him a lesson when he dumps her, and perhaps worst his wife has kicked him out of the house. As the story rushes to its conclusion in the upper Anio valley, Cornella gets boxed into a tight spot, Claudia Rufina has gone missing, and poor Petro is still mending from the beating, suspended, and evicted. We assume the sequel will continue his saga. -Thomas H. Watkins, Department of History, Western Illinois Univ. Macomb, Il 61455

- Thomas H. Watkins, 11/25/2005

This is less a mystery than a novel about water supply. Marcus Didius Falco is involved in trying to find out who is polluting Rome's aqueducts by tossing in parts of women's bodies. There is a great deal of information about the water and sewer systems, but no mystery, since we don't even meet the murderer until halfway through the book. However, this is definitely worth reading. Marcus and Helena have calmed down - perhaps a crying baby has forced them to deal with the basics. Both of their families and friends provide interesting sub-plots, although Helena's brother Justinus' story is not fully resolved. Petronius' marital problems make up a good part of the book, and we, along with Marcus, hope he will get organized. Fine for High School. -Ruth Breindel

- Ruth Breindel , 11/25/2005

This is the 9th novel to feature the Roman detective and super-sleuth Marcus Didius Falco. When a man cleaning the local fountain discovers a severed human hand, Falco and his old friend Petronius find themselves irresistibly drawn to a problem nobody else wants to know about. Learning that human body parts have been turning up for years in the water systems, aqueducts, sewers and even the River Tiber itself, Falco and Petronius find themselves hunting a vicious and sadistic killer who strikes only during public festivals. The Roman Games are imminent, the city fills up with sightseers and there is a dangerous air of disorder. Finding the killer among so many thousands would seem to be impossible. Unfamiliar though I was with Falco, I found myself drawn in no time into his life and his intimate knowledge of 1st century Rome. Falco's dry, ironic humour, his surprisingly modern sounding relationship with his partner Helena Justina, and his dubious family background all easily assist the reader to leap the two thousand years that might otherwise separate us. For example his description of his teenage nephew Gaius: 'A shaved head, an armful of self-inflicted tattoos of sphinxes, half his teeth missing, a huge tunic belted in folds by a three inch wide belt with a 'stuff you' buckle and murderous studs. Hung about with scabbards, pouches, gourds and amulets. A small boy making a big man's fashion statement.' An excellent read. I'm only surprised that some TV company hasn't snapped up the rights - it would be a sure-fire hit - I can only assume that the Roman setting causes potential production problems. - Towse Harrison From The Historical Novel Review (August 1997), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Towse Harrison, 11/25/2005

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