What to Read in a Power Outage: Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

Thunderstorms make me jittery.  In recent years, there have been epic floods and power outages. During last night’s storm, it was positively Deucalion and Pyrrha out there.

Shrieking with terror and blinded by sheet lightning, I retired to bed to read under the covers.  I was in the middle of an excellent novel, L.A. Woman by Eve Babitz (much like her book Eve’s Hollywood), when the power went out.  There we were, sitting in the dark.  And can you read a book with a flashlight or lantern?  I cannot.

And so I turned to e-books.  Mind you, there was a snag.  I used the tablet, because the e-reader needed to be charged.  And it seems that the e-books had not “downloaded” on the tablet unless I had clicked on them before the storm.

Finally I “opened” Lindsey Davis’s witty new historical mystery, Pandora’s Boy, the sixth in a series about a wisecracking female P.I. in ancient Rome.  Like Steven Saylor and David Wishart, who also write mystery series set in Rome, Davis writes pitch-perfect dialogue and her comic timing is impeccable.  She also gets the historical details right:  she was even honorary president of the Classical Association in the UK from 1997 to 1998.

The narrator, Flavia Albia, is the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco (the hero of Davis’s other mystery series), born in Britain, and an “informer” (a P.I.) in Rome during the reign of Emperor Domitian.  In Pandora’s Boy, she investigates the death of Clodia Volumnia, a 15-year-old girl who socialized with a set of wild, mostly well-to-do party-goers. Apparently Clodia was poisoned by a love potion, bought by her mother from Pandora, who is ostensibly a  seller of upscale cosmetics but has  a reputation for witchcraft.  Or at least that is Clodia’s father’s theory.  The mother denies it and moves out.

The dialogue is witty and the book is great fun.  Albia interviews a diverse cast of characters, including a Stoic family with a hippie lifestyle.   I especially enjoyed her first interview with Pandora, who, of course, denies that she is a witch–witchcraft is illegal.  Born in Britain, Albia tells Pandora that she herself is a Druid (also illegal in Rome), and spins an unlikely yarn about her divination spoons.

Albia’s wit and talent for improv during the investigation are very amusing.  I love the Druid bits, especially when Albia asks Pandora if she has a skull to sell.  After blabbing the question, she realizes she has gone too far.

Now I was stuck. This kind of situation was well known in my family. There was no need of a blood relationship to inherit crazy behavior. Falco was always coming up with mad schemes that led to near-disaster; now so was I.

It seemed unlikely Pandora would keep skeletons here in her expensive bower, though there were several painted cupboards with pedestal tops, little tombs that would normally be used for vases people had never liked.

“I don’t have a skull about me at present.” Relief! Perhaps Pandora feared that to harbor human bones was unwise in a city where soldiers could bang on your door at any moment, bent on a search after a poisonous tip-off. “What do you want it for, ducky?”

“Oh, classic necromancy,” I breezed, recovering my composure. “I thought I might impress you by conducting a spirit into it. My skills are not perfect, but I can conjure a soul from the Underworld to answer questions. Be warned, though. Because I was torn from my forebears too young, I never learned the right incantation to dismiss the spirit. It’s awful if the wrong one swans into your vessel, and you are stuck with a ghastly hanger-on who won’t go home to Hades.”

Funny?  Yes!  And Albia may be the only female P.I. character in ancient Rome,  This is not Davis’s most tightly-plotted book, but it is irresistible light reading.  And it was a distraction from the flash flooding here.