The seventh in the Ancient Roman I, Claudia series (Black Salamander, not reviewed, etc.) kicks off with a kidnapping. Just back from a strenuous trip to Gaul, high-octane widow Claudia Seferius (think Alexis Carrington crossed with Xena the Warrior Princess) receives a papyrus ransom note demanding a huge payment for the return of her precocious teenage niece Flavia. Since Flavia’s hysterical mother Julia, the widow of Claudia’s brother Gaius, offers no help, and her stepfather Marcellus is glad to be rid of her, the burden, as usual, falls on dependable Claudia, who sets a trap that bags an urchin named Flea, so dirty Claudia at first doesn’t realize she’s a girl. Claudia suspects that Flavia’s kidnapping is a ruse covering some hedonistic adventure. Soon, however, darker possibilities loom. A new Egyptian religious cult has taken up residence on the outskirts of Rome. Rumors of human sacrifice and sexual rituals ripple through the city. Claudia fears the cultists, whom she calls the Pyramidiots, may be involved in Flavia’s disappearance. With faithful slave Junius and resistant Flea in tow, she scours the city. But her bull-in-a-china-shop style doesn’t lend itself to subtle sleuthing. Before long, Junius is in jail, Flea on the loose, and Claudia frustrated and frayed. Must she turn for help to gruff investigator Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, a sexy chauvinist who both attracts and exasperates her?
In veering from comedy to kitsch, the author isn’t afraid to tip a wink through obvious anachronisms. But blunt, resourceful Claudia’s hard not to love: her exploits are a true guilty pleasure.