When informer and private detective Marcus Didius Falco decides to look for work that is not connected with the court of the emperor Vespasian, he takes as his first clients two women, ex-slaves, who want him to prevent a planned marriage between a real estate developer named Hortensius Novus and a woman named Severina Zotica; she has already buried three husbands who died under suspicious circumstances. The clients claim that such a marriage would endanger Novus’ life and threaten the interests of their husbands, who are Novus’ partners in business.
After a banquet to seal an accommodation between Novus and his partners and another developer named Appius Priscillus, Falco finds Novus dead, apparently the victim of poisoning. Neither the women who employed Falco nor their husbands seem to care whether the murderer is identified or not, but Severina Zotica, whom Falco regards as the chief suspect, hires him to look into the crime; she also tries to seduce him, not quite succeeding. Falco becomes more certain that murder has been committed when Novus’ cook, a Gaulish slave who prepared the banquet, dies of a different kind of poisoning.
Falco tries to solve the case while working out a new arrangement with his lover, the patrician Helena Justina, daughter of a senator. He is beaten by Priscillus’ men and threatened several times, but in the end he identifies the murderers of Novus and of his cook, and also exacts vengeance for the deliberate destruction of the building in which he and Helena had lived together, a calamity which killed four people.
Like its predecessors, VENUS IN COPPER combines an interesting mystery with numerous details about life in Rome late in the first century A.D. In this novel, however, in contrast to the first two entries in the series, Falco remains in Rome throughout the action, and he has only minimal contact with the imperial palace. The colorful characters, including the members of Falco’s decidedly plebeian family, help add to the excitement and interest of these well-written mysteries.