In Davis's Marcus Didius Falco series (Two for the Lions, 1999, etc.), the vision of a wisecracking hard-boiled detective skulking around Ancient Rome in a disreputable tunic either charms or irritates. Now picture said plebian gum-sandal promoted to the middle ranks as the Procurator of Poultry for the Senate and People of Rome. This time, Falco struggles with respectability and family responsibility when two religious mysteries present themselves. First, a five-year-old Vestal Virgin candidate named Gaia Laelia tries to hire Falco to save her from her family, who, she claims, want to kill her. Since the Laeli include an ex–Vestal Virgin aunt and a grandfather who’s a retired high-ranking priest, Gaia's story seems scandalously unlikely. So Falco dodges Gaia, only to have his patrician brother-in-law Aelianus stumble over the dead priest of another cult, the Arval Brethren. The unidentified priest's throat was cut in a grim imitation of animal sacrifice. But when Falco and Aelianus try to report the murder, the corpse has disappeared and the Arval hierarchy won't talk. The Arval higher-ups, however, are unaccountably eager to talk—to Gaia's grandfather. While Falco and Aelianus investigate, Gaia disappears, and the Emperor asks Falco to find her. Was she taken to prevent her Vestal Virgin selection, or as part of the Arval cover-up? Or has someone in the religious Laelius family snapped?
Davis makes a ritual sacrifice of Falco's cynicism, as he protects the weak and tweaks the privileged in an anachronistic triumph of middle-class family values over that old-time religion.