The Sirens of Surrentum

Written by Caroline Lawrence
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

AD 80. Italy. In this, Lawrence’s eleventh Roman Mystery, Flavia, Nubia, Jonathan and Lupus, are invited to the Villa Limona on the Bay of Naples by their friend, Pulchra. There is a mystery she wants them to solve: who is trying to poison her mother, Polla?

They arrive to find a house party is planned. Three attractive widows and three young bachelors are coming – all guests the last time Polla was poisoned. This time, Flavia vows, they will discover which of them did it.

The Bay of Naples was notorious for its loose-living reputation, and Villa Limona fully lives up to it. Soon the four children succumb to the sexually-charged atmosphere. Flavia, rising eleven, sighs over Pulchra’s father, the handsome Felix; the widows sunbathe in the nude and the boys sneak off to catch a glimpse; Felix’s beautiful slave girls eye him lustfully and several of the child slaves look suspiciously like him. Felix may be handsome, but, as Flavia learns, his infidelity is making Polla very unhappy. But would he, or one of the widows who fancy him, poison Polla?

This series, aimed at 8-12 year olds, is widely used in schools. In previous books, Lawrence explores various aspects of Roman life, e.g. the gladiators’ world. Here, it’s the Roman attitude to sex. I wouldn’t like to be the teacher explaining, ‘It wasn’t a child crying with pain. It was a woman crying with pleasure’ to a class of 8-year-olds.

I suspect that Lawrence is attempting a Jacqueline Wilson, but, sadly, it is beyond her power. Her forte lies in making Roman history accessible within a simple story, but, in my view, characterization is not her strong point. She lacks the skill to deal with children’s emerging sexuality, not to mention the adult ‘bed-wrestling’, as she puts it. I cannot recommend it.