This is the last Roman Mysteries book, a collection of short stories set at various points in between the other books, with the last story set after the last book. Since I've fallen way behind on reading the books, I nearly didn't read the last one, but I was on a roll so I carried on. Unfortunately, now I know something about what happens at the end of the series, but not very much, and I will still enjoy finding out how it happens!
Caroline Lawrence explains at the beginning of the book that she was often asked by British readers if she would write a Roman Mystery set in Britannia, but she just couldn't fit it into the tight timescale of the books. I have to confess, if I had read the books earlier, I would have been one of them! I wouldn't want every Roman-set book I read to be set in Britannia, because apart from the rebellion of Boudicca, it would be very boring, but I do like to see a British setting every now and again. It gives British readers like me the wonderful opportunity to say 'I've been there!'. It's great for children especially, of course, since they can ask their parents or teachers to take them to the places from the books - Colchester, London - if they live nearby. Obviously, all this only applies to British readers, and only English and Welsh readers at that, since the Romans never got to Scotland or Northern Ireland, but it means a lot to us so it's great to see Briton appear in this book! Flavia still can't go there, of course, but her armchair detective approach works perfectly well.
There are six short stories collected here. Like all the Roman Mysteries, they contain subtle references to very adult topics (the rebellion of Boudicca, which I discussed recently), mentions of real Roman texts that the children might like to read (Apollodorus' Library of Greek Mythology, which I've used for my work many, many times but, I confess, I've never actually sat down and read it cover to cover) and one rather unpleasant and sad twist. Child-me would have hated that, but grown-up-me can see the value of it! The children are also wonderfully, refreshingly sensible - whenever things get dangerous, if they can, they always send for adult assistance from their parents or the magistrates, which is so nice to see. I gave up on reading things like The Famous Five as a child because the children got to the point where they were just stupid in the risks they took.
My favourite stories were probably The Legionary from Londinium and Death by Medusa. I learned from the latter that Friends lied to me - I am shocked! (Apparently, urine won't actually help a jellyfish sting). I especially liked the letter-format of The Legionary from Londinium, partly because it's a very Roman form of writing but mostly because I just have a peculiar fondness for stories written in the first person - they seem more immediate, somehow. I also liked The Five Barley Grains, although it was rather sad, because I liked the way it was linked to The Legionary from Londinium, giving the collection a sense of cohesion short story collections sometimes lack. Threptus and the Sacred Chickens was also fun - I warmed to Threptus and Floridius, and I liked the very Dickensian street gang, who seemed to have stepped straight out of Oliver Twist.
Two of the stories in this collection are re-tellings of Sherlock Holmes stories - something young readers will presumably only know when told and which might lead them to an interest in Sherlock Holmes as well. I have to confess, I only know this because I read the Author's Notes - although I'm very fond of detective stories, I've only ever read The Hound of the Baskervilles and only seen one Granada episode and the new movie. I did notice that Flavia's methods of detection were very, very Holmesian though, especially in her identification of the legionary. I liked the reference to 'Baker's Street' in one of the retold stories as well!
I did get a bit confused by the brothers Quartus (fourth) and Quintus (fifth) when Quartus was revealed to be younger than Quintus, and wondered if perhaps they were related to Zaphod Beeblebrox. But it's possible that the first little Quartus died when Quintus was new born, and when another son was born the next year, they re-used the old name - that did happen, probably quite frequently. I also wondered for a moment about the plausibility of the legionary asking Flavia for help, but the story explains that she had been recommended to him by a young girl (from the previous collection) and he is taken aback by just how young she is, so it works. The Perseus Prophecy is very, very short - but perhaps this will be appreciated by young children learning to read!
I haven't read the later Mysteries yet (they're on my list...) so I don't know how readers for whom this is their very last encounter with Flavia and friends will feel. The collection perhaps lacks a sense of saying goodbye to the four - Nubia in particular does not feature a great deal, Jonathan gets one story told from his point of view, while Flavia takes centre stage for the most part. However, the last story, in which the inspiration of Lupus in particular helps someone else a great deal, perhaps performs this function - and for me, I have the rest of the series to look forward to! I suspect that the final book in the series performs the function of saying goodbye to the characters, so to do so again here would seem repetitive. Perhaps this collection is better viewed as a 'DVD extra' - just when you thought it was all over, there's one more bit of Rome to enjoy!
Roman ruins at Colchester