LINDSEY Davis is well-known for her series of novels, featuring the off-beat Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco.

A wonderfully witty, intelligent, subversive creation – imagine Raymond Chandler let loose in the Forum and you’ll get the general idea.

Even better than Falco was The Course of Honour, a novel based on the story of the emperor Vespasian and his long-term mistress. Now, Lindsey Davis continues with the story of Vespasian’s younger son, the emperor Domitian.

Domitian got off to a good start – got the army on his side, led a few successful campaigns. But then he became more and more unbalanced – wanting to be addressed as God, for instance – and increasingly paranoid, trusting absolutely no one and having people killed on the slightest pretext.

Or no pretext at all. Basically, a megalomaniac tyrant. Always a challenge.

In among the true story – as always, meticulously-researched – Davis has woven in tale of Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a reluctant Praetorian Guard with post-traumatic stress, a drink problem, a sex problem, too many wives – sometimes at the same time – and a feisty flatmate, Flavia Lucilla, hairdresser to the imperial family.

Theirs is the Rome of ordinary people, of crowded streets, food stalls, public baths, creaky carts, corner bars and dodgy patrons, so well-described you can almost smell it – as well as taste the food, so deliciously described. Still, guard meets hairdresser.

Guard loses hairdresser.

Guard finds hairdresser again.

In the meantime, Domitian has gone completely mad. Rome lives in terror. No one feels safe. Nervous conspirators plot and plan the death of the emperor over plates of almond fancies. This is a novel of depth and intelligence and, in places very dark – madness, random murders and burying the Chief Vestal Virgin alive – are never going to be a laugh a minute.

But the author’s trademark wit, wry observations and lightness of touch keep it skimming lightly along.

More books like this and we’ll hardly miss Falco at all.