The mystery portion of See Delphi and Die is essentially telegraphed fairly early in the narrative. Character is character and character will out. Yet, there are enough “red herrings” and unlikable characters throughout the novel that even when one senses the eventually exposed villain, the trip is worth taking. In fact, the trip is probably more worth taking than the peregrination through Greece that M.Didius Falco, wife, and nephews undertake. I’m sure that even during Vespasian’s reign there was much to see in Greece and, by having the informer (ie. “detective”) and his party following in the wake of a “tour group,” Davis takes the opportunity to describe some of the shrines and great buildings (as well as some of the scoundrels and petty tyrants/societies/priesthoods which would have surrounded such).
Perhaps the biggest surprise in See Delphi and Die is not the exposition of the mystery (or mysteries) of the narrative, but the fact that it is neither Falco’s diligent 1st century “gumshoeing” that actually solves the issue(s) but a fortuitous provision of the vital puzzle piece from one of the most unlikely sources in the party. This doesn’t, of course, mean that Falco was either ineffective or negligent in his duties (even if he did manage to imply more interest on Caesar Vespasian’s part that was strictly justified in order to secure help with expenses and cooperation from the provincial authorities). It also doesn’t suggest that neither Falco nor the beautiful and wise Helena Justina were never in any danger. No noir detective faces more imminent threats than Falco, in spite of the lack of a “gat” in the ancient world.
As usual, Davis not only provides a mystery, but a superb historical background. For those who are apt to confuse the customs of the modern Olympics with those of the ancient games and those who are unaware of Nero’s travesty in using his influence to rig the games in his favor, Davis reminds us of the conspicuous consumption used to curry Zeus’ favor in exorbitant sacrifices, the all-male attendance at games and feasts, and the confusion in the calendar following Nero’s intrusive competition in the games. I learned two new terms (and I read some Greek) in kottabos (which I should have known, but…alas) and pankration (sometimes transliterated differently, but a term anyone familiar with history should have known—including me). The former, if you are in my leaking boat, was a competition performed with un-decanted wine. In kottabos, one flicks the sediment from the wine toward a target in the center of the banquet room. Obviously, one needs to be fairly far along in the inebriation process for that to be interesting. The latter, of course, is a particularly brutal style of fighting that was part of the original competition and, of course, it pays a role in both one of the main threats to Falco and solving the crime.
So, I believe fans of the series of historical mysteries by Lindsey Davis will enjoy See Delphi and Die as much as any of her previous works. It is entertaining, even if it isn’t as mysterious as some of the others.