During a steamy summer in ancient Rome, everyone’s favorite scheming widow, Claudia Seferius, sees her nemesis Marcus Orbilio, of the Security Police, too close for comfort while she’s giving one of her racehorses an extra chemical incentive. Since Claudia’s pesky attraction to the sexy Orbilio only increases her anxiety, she decides to beat the heat by accepting a longstanding offer from wealthy vintner Leo to visit Cressia, his private island. But she’s left the frying pan for an inferno: Cressia seethes with enough intrigues and villains for a month of doomsdays. As a local demon entertains vengeful fantasies in italicized interchapters, pirates, led by lusty Jason, prowl the surrounding waters, threatening to take control of the island. Leo, recently divorced from shrewish Lydia, plans to take an impossibly young Roman bride. Inexplicably, Lydia’s catlike sister Silvia is a welcome guest, and the fur really flies when Lydia herself shows up. Because Leo’s in the process of transforming Cressia into a paradise studded with grand works of art, the guest list also includes pompous portrait painter Nikias and brilliant, effete multi-genre artist Saunio, in charge of the massive project, who’s constantly surrounded by the acolytes Claudia dubs the BYM (beautiful young men). When one of the BYM is chained to a pillar in a building set afire, who should show up to investigate but bristly Orbilio?
The plot in this eighth installment (Dream Boat, 2002, etc.) is a mess: the story drifts away from dynamic Claudia, and the finale is unsatisfying. Still, it’s never boring.