Don’t worry, I’m not going to write about every single volume of Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco series. But this one is interesting because it both is and isn’t a major departure from the preceding 3 novels.
The basic ingredients are the same: historical fiction, hardboiled whodunnit, comedy of manners, political intrigue, and romance. But the proportions are quite different this time around. In particular, the prominence of whodunnit elements is so reduced that the book barely qualifies as a “mystery novel” in the traditional sense, although the mystery sub-plot is too well integrated to be gratuitous. (And although Falco spends comparatively few calories trying to build links between corpses and killers, The Iron Hand of Mars gives him puzzles of other sorts to wrangle.)
The Iron Hand of Mars even features some armed-parties-tramping-through-the-woods-looking-for-things action which almost gives it a fantasy novel vibe — except that a clash over who wins the contract to supply an army base with tableware is the sort of nuts-and-bolts conflict which Davis excels at depicting, and which few fantasists would deem worthy of consideration.
Finally, Falco’s distinctive narrative presence holds everything together. He’s a wise-cracking private investigator (informer, in Roman parlance) in the classic mode — wry, self-deprecating, observant, and incisive (apart from the requisite blind spots). He’s also a Roman citizen who dwells in a richly detailed, complex, and credible social environment. The seamlessness with which Davis melds these disparate elements continues to astound me.
Needs More Demons? Nope.