Newly appointed Procurator of the Sacred Poultry (with a responsibility for goslings), Falco becomes entangled with the world of Roman religions and cults, and the Vestal Virgins in particular!
We see a better side of Helena’s brother Aelianus too. After he literally stumbles across the body of one of the Arval Brethren, with his throat slit, Aelianus offers to help out with Falco’s investigations. Not that Falco sees it that way…
Unwillingly in partnership with Anacrites but happily and lucratively working on Vespasian’s tax census, Falco finds himself investigating the murder of an arena lion.
When the trail grows cold, Falco and family – extended to include drunken sot brother in law Famia and truculent teenage nephew Gaius – travel across the inner sea to the northern shores of Africa in search of Helena’s errant younger brother Camillus Justinus and Baetican heiress Claudia Rufina who we last saw eloping, at the end of Three Hands in the Fountain.
Here the plot lines converge as Falco and Co travel around the main towns of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, culminating in a denouement at the End of Harvest Games in Lepcis Magna.
Falco and new partner Petro are on the trail of a serial killer, whose victims start turning up piecemeal in Rome’s water supply. Helena is nursing new baby Julia and helping to keep their enquiries on track and Claudia Rufina, visiting from Beatica, is engaged to Helena’s brother Aelianus.
Anacrites is still lodging with Ma and becomes embroiled in the investigation on behalf of the Water Board.
Meanwhile Falco and Petro find themselves assigned an official patron/supervisor in the form of ex consul Frontinus.
Falco and heavily pregnant Helena travel to the Iberian peninsula to investigate a possible olive oil cartel, and the murder of a freelance investigator in Imperial employ and the potentially fatal attack on Falco’s arch enemy, and Palace Spy Master, Anacrites.
We get to see life in the provinces – warmer ones than those visited by Falco and Helena in previous adventures, but not as warm as their desert adventures en route to Palmyra. Still, at the extremities of Rome’s reach, there’s still plenty of social snobbery, politics, patronage and money making in play amongst the privileged elite.
Nux comes along to wreak her habitual happy havoc, and makes a cracker of an entrance before even leaving the civilised world of Imperial Rome:
“Hello, Nux.” Nux farted quietly, then turned round to survey her rear with mild surprise.