Any long-running series of books, or TV for that matter, runs the risk of its formula becoming tired and its characters falling flat. Thankfully, with her admirable attention to detail and carefully planned story arc, Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries have so far avoided this trap. Now on book 11, Lawrence’s historical japes are still fresh, intriguing and entertaining.
The latest in the series, The Sirens of Surrentum, is possibly the most risqu’ so far ‘ tackling the tricky themes of sex, love and lust, as well as incorporating the usual ‘mystery’ at the centre of the story. Flavia and friends find themselves surrounded by debauchery and decadence when they visit their friend Pulchra, whose father Flavia idolises, at the Villa Limona. The mystery is who is poisoning Pulchra’s mother ‘ the possible culprits being the other house-guests, who include a selection of eligible young men and women. While the grown-ups wine, dine, flirt and frolic, the children attempt to expose the poisoner. But Flavia is preoccupied with matters of the heart, as her infatuation with Felix grows stronger and she longs for another year to pass so that she will be of marriageable age.
The customs and etiquette of Roman courting and marriage are explored throughout the book, as Lawrence once again manages to educate without patronising. The potentially controversial issue of tween love is gracefully handled, with a subtle appeal to the reader ‘ don’t rush into romance, and when you do, choose the safe man, not the dangerous one. It is a timeless message with which anyone who has ever experienced the highs and lows of a teenage crush will identify.
I for one was relieved when, in the process of solving the mystery, Flavia finally sees through her idol’s glamorous fa’ade and is released from her infatuation. Boys shouldn’t be deterred by the romantic theme ‘ there is still plenty of action and adventure to satisfy them, including a hilarious scene in which nearly all the characters (except the wise Nubia) are tricked into eating poison. Sirens of Surrentum is certainly a strong contender for my favourite Roman Mystery so far ‘ roll on book 12!