Read the opening of Desperate Undertaking: The brand new historical thriller from Lindsey Davis
Who did this to you?’ ‘The undertaker!’
The dying woman made no sense.We were too late to save her. She had been clinging on, but she gave up on life as we tried to help her. The way she had been killed was as desperate as anything I had ever encountered. I was an investigator who had seen foul play before, but nothing as troubling, and never before with a victim who left behind such a puzzle.
Why did she blame the undertaker? Who meets their undertaker while they are still alive? People expect a proper sequence of events. Bodies are entrusted to a funeral firm only after someone dies; then they may be handed over for hygienic plugs, pre-cremation cosmetic work, convenient storage until relatives cough up for dusty urn space or clear a plinth in that showy mausoleum of theirs.
I am a reasonable woman, at least when I cannot avoid it, so I concede that errors can be made. All right: it may sometimes happen that an incompetent doctor or a money-grubbing heir is too quick off the mark. They despatch their hapless cadaver for processing just a smidgeon too soon. Then, in the quiet gloom where the body has been carried, something changes. The ‘corpse’ suddenly sits up. Determined not to go yet, it has snuffled back to life. Finding itself laid on a cushioned bier, or at least slammed down on a trestle, it probably yells. Anybody – any body – would do. In that case, a black-hearted under- taker with a pressing need for cash might swiftly apply pressure to a windpipe to make sure of his fees.
Most would surely take more pleasure in announcing a miracle revival, if only to gain a free mention for their business in the Daily Gazette: ‘Corpse stuns observers, asks for dinner and a warmer tunic . . .’ Suedius, the sinister mortician in the Field of Mars, claimed to me later that corpses revived all the time; he assured me they would chase him around his premises, hilariously trying to kill him.
Who could blame them for going after him? I certainly wanted to. He was an idiot. He had no soul. He gave me a lot of trouble on this inquiry.
At the theatre, it seemed he and the dead woman were previously unacquainted. When Suedius turned up he winced stagily and asked us, ‘Bloody hell! Who is she?’ It did not occur to anyone that he might be lying.
He had been summoned in the ordinary way by the vigiles
– except that he was told to come at top speed. The authorities wanted him to whisk away this tortured body before she, and the abominable manner in which she had been killed, attracted public notice.
Keeping it quiet would be impossible. The public had already seen the group of us rushing to the theatre. Gawkers all over the Field of Mars expected a sensation, because people knew a killer was at large. They cannot have guessed what was coming this time. We got wind of it, however, as soon as we entered: we could smell the dung and hear the giant wild aurochs scraping its hoofs and furiously bellowing. An amphitheatre battle bull, weighing fifteen hundred pounds, is terrifying.
He was famous. His name was Buculus. He would not stand dribbling in a stall while people fed him grass. He preferred to trash the stall.
We already knew this poor woman had been deliberately lured there by someone who intended her to suffer. She had not come teetering into the auditorium, dreaming of some acting role she coveted, then wandered onstage where she had a cruel face-to-face encounter with a primeval bull.
It was certainly cruel. But not face-to-face.
Nor was it accidental. A highly inventive madman, with at least one accomplice, had prepared the scene we had found at the Theatre of Balbus. It was meant to be a truly dreadful punishment. Merely to have the victim trampled or gored to death would have been too easy – and not theatrical enough for the undertaker
Rome, the very end of December. The Field of Mars is packed with monuments, none more beautiful than Domitian's new Odeon and Stadium. But the area has been overtaken by ugly events: elaborately staged murders. Someone bears a spectacular grudge against the theatrical community, and intends to get revenge in the most spectacular way possible. The killer's method is to re-enact bloody scenes from the gruesome side of popular theatre, where characters in plays really die on stage.
A figure from the past wants Flavia Albia's father to investigate, but Falco is out of Rome for the holidays. Albia seizes the commission. And begins to regret doing so almost immediately. 'The undertaker did it!' the first victim croaks before expiring. This seems to make no sense, because surely people are already dead when they go to their funeral?
Though there is a serial killer at large, the authorities would prefer a cover-up but Albia is driven to discover what is going on. How much blood must be shed before the mania ends? And could her own family be on the list for a frightful stage death?
Praise for Lindsey Davis and the Flavia Albia series
'It positively crackles with knowledge of the city and its people, mixed with social comment, ingenious and bloody plots and sharp observational skills leavened by more than a smattering of genuine and sometimes earthy humour' Crime Review
'Lighthearted, witty and effortlessly clever, just like its wonderful heroine, this is a window into ancient Rome, and a tonic and a joy to read' The Observer
'For a totally exhilarating romp through Ancient Rome, Lindsey Davis' latest Flavia Alba novel won't be beaten and offers an immersive experience of a vibrant world full of real, recognisable characters' Shotsmag
'In this witty novel by the mistress of Roman crime, the reader is transported behind the scenes of a Triumph into a fascinating world of actors, costumiers and animal trainers, all united in their hatred of the murdered man' Sunday Express Magazine