|Cover artist||Mark Edwards|
|Series||Marcus Didius Falco|
|Publisher||Century, Mysterious Press|
|5 February 2009|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The story is set in AD 77, in Alexandria, Egypt, which was at that time part of the Roman Empire. Falco and his family travel to Egypt to see two of the seven wonders of the world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Great Pyramid of Giza, but are caught up in investigation into a mysterious death, and soon several deaths. The plot revolves around the Library of Alexandria, with reference to library management practice, corruption, illegal autopsies, a man-eating crocodile, and the legendary catoblepas.
Falco and his family have chosen to stay in Alexandria with his mother's brother, Fulvius, and his partner Cassius who host a dinner party to which Falco's family and the Chief Librarian of the Serapaeion, Theon, are invited. Unfortunately for them, Theon is later found dead, locked in his chamber at the Serapaeion. Falco, Fulvius and the others fall under suspicion of the authorities and it is up to Falco to clear everyone's name, as usual. The first visit Falco makes is to Theon's private chambers (and the colleagues of Theon, unfortunately). Initially concentrating on Theon's death as a murder by jealous colleagues seeking Theon's prestigious post, Falco meets the people running the Serapaeion: Philetus, its deceptively incompetent Director, as well as several others: an academic assistant, Pastous; a corrupt lawyer, Nicanor and a naturalist, Philadelphion. Falco's family also cross paths with an old family friend, Thalia (from Venus in Copper) who has also arrived in Egypt presumably to "discuss business" with Philadelphion.
As Falco investigates, more deaths take place: an old scholar, Nibytas, is found dead in the Library, while a student, Heras, is devoured by a crocodile tended by Philadelphion at the Royal Zoo, further compounding the difficulty of Falco's investigations. The new deaths aren't the only things Falco has to worry about in Egypt. Falco's "holiday" takes a turn for the worse as he bumps into someone he would rather not meet: his father! Marcus Didius Geminius, alias Favonius, is visiting Falco's uncle Fulvius on business too, with Thalia in tow. At the same time Falco and his wife Helena are hounded by a stalker named Katutis.
Eventually, however, the truth comes out: the Serapaeion naturalist, Philadelphion, takes matters into his own hands and performs a necropsy on Theon's body, risking arrest by the authorities in the process (who have banned operating on dead bodies). The necropsy findings suggest that Theon was emotionally depressed (his liver was enlarged from heavy drinking) and that he was poisoned from ingesting oelander. Further interrogation of Pastous and a deadly chase through Alexandria ending at the top of the Pharos soon yield more clues and Falco deduces that Philetus was stealing scrolls from the Library of Alexandria to be smuggled back to Rome; the intermediaries being none other than Falco's uncle and father, Fulvius and Geminius. Theon and Nibytas were trying to stop Philetus but realised that whistleblowing would lead nowhere — with tragic consequences for both: Theon committed suicide (by eating the toxic oelander used in garlands from the dinner with Falco); later it is revealed that Nibytas was murdered. Fearful of being found out, Philetus attempts to burn down the library to hide his crimes but Helena leads the students at the Serapaeion to douse the blaze and Falco confronts Philetus, opening denouncing his misdeeds. He is subsequently forced to resign his post as Director.
Although the case concerning Nibytas and Theon is closed, a death is left unsolved: that of Heras. As Falco investigates, he discovers sexual jealousy between Nicanor and Philadelphion: they are seeing the same mistress, thus marking the two men out as suspects for attempted murder but they soon reconcile and take turns to "share" the woman between each other. Ironically, this death is discovered to be linked to the Chief Librarian's post — a disgruntled Library worker named Timosthenes coveted the vacant post of Chief Librarian and lured Philadelphion's crocodile out of its pen, hoping to remove Philadelphion as a potential rival for the post but ended up killing Heras instead. Enraged at his failure, Timosthenes lures Falco into a temple to kill him but is instead stabbed to death by Katutis, who has been stalking Falco all along to coax a job out of him in Rome.
Forced to oblige, Falco grudgingly accepts Katutis as his family secretary and with the murders in Alexandria finally solved, Falco's family can visit the Pyramids but their trip is ruined by a sandstorm. After returning to Rome with Katutis, Falco and Helena receive a letter from Cassius, stating that Philadelphion eventually became the Chief Librarian, despite having vowed to Falco to renounce the position to stay on as a naturalist.
- Roman rule and administration in Egypt
- The domination of Greeks in the intellectual and cultural life of Roman Asia and the Middle East
- Falco's relationship with his father and distant relatives
- The events which unfold and lead into the next novel, Nemesis
Davis has said:
|“||... [I spent some time] researching in the British Library - and since I always enjoy double use of experiences, you may find my observations reflected in scenes in the new book which are set in the legendary Great Library of Alexandria. ... Not that there could ever be academic back-stabbing, murder, arson and fraud at that wonderful building on the Euston Road and I certainly never came across an on-site autopsy of a librarian who would end up mummified!||”|
- Library of Alexandria, central to the book
- Serapeum#Alexandria, the Serapeion of the book
- Musaeum, the Museion of the book
- Catoblepas, "not appearing, but deserves a mention" (from list of Principal Characters)
- Davis, Lindsey (January 2009). The Lindsey Davis Newsletter (not yet on website as at 2009-02-17) 9. Century. p. 1.