Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Chamber 1The interesting thing about reading the Harry Potter novels chronologically (for my Really Like This Book podcast series on HP), and fairly close together, is that you can see the patterns in their construction. In The Chamber of Secrets J K Rowling reused the pattern that began Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The novel begins with Harry at the Dursleys, he’s not happy, there’s a climactic episode where magic invades the Dursleys’ world, and Harry is rescued from them and goes off to Hogwarts. In The Chamber of Secrets the climactic Dursley episode is the whipped cream pudding crashing to the floor thanks to Dobby. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I’ll be doing next time, Harry blows up Aunt Marge into a balloon. These episodes of increasing tension, release, and joyous escape, produce a very happy feeling, because they’re cathartic. They get rid of our worries that Harry and the readers won’t be able to get back to Hogwarts, but they don’t get rid of the tension within the wizarding world that there is something dark and evil creeping around, with the Dark Lord waiting to rise again.  In the Chamber of Secrets, we’re able to see a little more of the darkness waiting, because Harry is a little more observant, or cognizant, of things that younger readers won’t notice or understand.

Chamber 2The first thing we don’t understand is Dobby, because Rowling is withholding a lot of the lore of house-elves from us on his first appearance. We do learn more about them in later novels, but we can see just on this first appearance in Chamber of Secrets that there is a great deal more to understand about them than we’ve been told, which increases their attractive mystery. Then there is the dreadfulness of Harry & Ron’s crime in being seen in the flying car: we hadn’t realised until now quite how separate the wizarding and Muggle worlds are kept by their respective authorities. We also had very little idea until this book that there were wizarding authorities, or the extent to which there was a wizarding world with its own organisation and laws. The arrival of the letter telling Harry off for doing magic in the holidays opens that new door. Harry’s accidental journey into Knockturn Alley takes him through another new door, exploring who the nastier wizards and witches are, what they have, where they shop, and so on. But so much isn’t explained, and each item mentioned so obviously has its own story. The richness in the details is what makes the unexplained aspects of the wizarding world so enjoyable.

Chamber 3There is also the increased exposure to what the adult witches and wizards think about their world. They act in very recognisable ways that reflect how the younger characters operate as well. In this novel, the confrontation between Mr Malfoy and Mr Weasley matches, and undoubtedly encourages the aggression between their sons. Mrs Weasley’s crush on Lockhart is matched by Ginny’s crush on Harry. Gilderoy Lockhart is a creation of genius, because he operates as a character on so many levels. He’s a luvvie, and a self-interested and egotistical fraud, so that’s very interesting: we learn that like all humans, not all witches and wizards tell the truth, and they actively mislead others for their own gain. Good lesson. Lockhart is also an experienced manipulator of his reading public, the gullible middle-aged witches who go all fluttery at the sight of him. Celebrity is very familiar to us from the fan’s end, so it’s highly instructive to be shown how the celebrity works this for their own advantage. The revelation, told later, that Lockhart hasn’t done any of the things his books say he has done, doesn’t surprise us. Lockhart’s appropriation of Harry’s celebrity to add to his own, and his assumption that Harry too wants to be as famous as Lockhart does, are painfully funny, as are all situations which plunge the hero into awkwardness. And finally, Lockhart’s tips to Harry on how to manage his fame, when it’s clear to the reader that this is the last thing Harry wants, show us that Lockhart is jealous of Harry’s genuine, greater, more serious fame, as shown by his efforts to keep ahead in the fame game that he doesn’t realise that no-one else is playing. Lockhart is a lot of fun, but he’s loaded with messages about the process of becoming famous that only Rita Skeeter, in a later novel, will match.

Chamber 4I can’t remember very well what it was like to be twelve, but I can remember the awe of being a first year in the mock-baronial 19th-century pile that was Aberdeen Grammar School. Corridors, endless corridors, and the terror of knowing that you’re late for a class whose location you can’t find: Rowling certainly got that right for Hogwarts. I can also remember the happiness of knowing that the nice teachers might not mind very much if we answered back sometimes, and our rigid best behaviour in second-year physics, whose teacher was outstandingly good at keeping order through fear. Rowling’s depiction of Hogwarts as a school is very good indeed, as is her timing of Harry and Ron’s bad behaviour, and their cockiness and thoughtlessness. There’s a strong foundation of realistic British school culture in these novels, the behaviour, norms and expectations. This is of course completely at odds with a basilisk loose in the pipes, an enchanted diary that corrodes the will, and duelling lessons. The contrast between extreme normality and wildly fantastical adventure is highly enjoyable, and the school setting accentuates the drama of the magic, the traps, the creatures, the ghosts, and so on. I really admire how the seeping sense of danger approaching is hidden behind the fun and excitement. Rowling is very good indeed at introducing uncertainty at the back of the mind, hiding behind the Quidditch match.

Chamber 5Her plotting is impeccable: nothing is wasted, every event and action has a solid justification that’s been signposted pages before, and she hides the foregrounding material to be used in later books so that we don’t notice its importance. The usual technique for this is to give such a piece of information two functions; one for now, and one for later. Hence, back in The Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry found that he could speak to snakes, that was a valuable piece of information to be used in The Chamber of Secrets. But in the earlier book, we just assume that speaking to snakes is what wizards do, it’s simply part of the unknown world we are only just beginning to understand. Only in The Chamber of Secrets do we find out that being a Parseltongue is very rare, it is closely associated with the Dark Arts and with Slytherin, and there is considerable social feeling against it as a character trait in the wizarding world. All this falls with a crash on Harry’s shoulders just when he doesn’t need to be thought any more odd than he already is. We have our confidence jolted, because something is not as we thought it was, we don’t actually know what is normal in the wizarding world at all. We realise that Ron is a crucial character for the reader to rely on, as well as Harry and Hermione, since he is the most accessible source of information about the everyday life of wizards. But this isn’t actually completely reliable: would you trust a 12 year old boy to explain to Martians how your life works? Especially when they might need to know more than what a 12 year old boy is interested in? That’s why Rowling had Hermione memorise Hogwarts: A History.

Chamber 7The Weasley family are turning into Harry’s surrogate family, since he is strongly in need of guidance and advice, as well as working out what is normal in his new life. Can the wizarding world be read as a metaphor for puberty, for becoming a teenager, for the human rite of passage? Fantasy fiction in western culture about the discovery of new skills and experiences does tend to feature teenagers, or very young adults, as the protagonists, so the discovery of the new world is closely bound up with the discovery of the new you. It’s well-known that parents are not teenagers’ first choice for their guides and mentors in the new world, which is where teachers, and the parents of friends become important: permitting distance, being able to be objective, and also offering security when required. It’s all about learning to fly.

If I knew more about football I’d be raving about the Quidditch descriptions. I think the best ones are in the Prisoner of Azkaban, but in The Chamber of Secrets the Quidditch games, and training, function more obviously as the physical release that the children need in gym and sports classes. But is that all they can do? No netball, athletics, tennis-like games to replace the real world equivalents? What do those wizarding children do for sport who don’t get picked for the Quidditch team? And who else do they play against, outside the school?

Next week: Harry Potter and the The Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Potter 1 1
The UK version

This is a lightly edited version of the first Really Like This Book podcast script about the very well-known Harry Potter novels. I’ve been observing the rise of Harry Potter studies in my professional life, having graded research papers by students, and sometimes these novels inspire excellent essays. There is a lot to say about these books, so I’m not talking about the films, which are a different set of kettles of fish.

So, the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, first appeared in 1997, and not many people noticed. It took three years for my family to discover Harry Potter, through the CD version of the Chamber of Secrets given as a child’s birthday present, which we listened to obsessively as we drove around France in the summer of 2000. I bought the first of our copies of the books on the ferry on the way back to Britain, and after that we were hooked until the last film came out, eleven years later. When I read the novels aloud to my children when they were very young, as they ate their tea, they ate food they would normally refuse to touch, and they would also eat everything on their plate, such were the superb distraction powers of Harry Potter. I wrote to J K Rowling to thank her. When the later novels came out, we bought them in hardback on the day of publication like millions of others. We had a family agreement that I could read each book in parallel with the children because I was the fastest reader and could read the book while the children were at school. So my reading experience of Harry Potter has been both very slow and careful while reading aloud, noticing every word and how it works on the page and in the voice and mind’s eye, and also reading in a gobbling rush to find out what happens before the book was taken away from me.

The US version
The US version

Re-reading Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (in the USA and in several other countries it’s called The Sorcerer’s Stone, of course), I was laughing out loud, and found, once again, that I really wanted to read this book rather than do the things I ought to have been doing. The plot of an orphan bullied by his bad family and rescued by entry into a wonderful magical world works on me every time. The early sufferings of Harry with the Dursleys were very attractive to read because we know he escapes, and because he is cushioned from the real world, and real suffering. The Dursleys are not of our time today because there is no internet in their world – it was only just beginning to be used in British homes when Rowling began to write these books – so the outside world is hardly present, and there is no contact with other families, or with school life, or any of the normal suburban life of English families (cub scouts, tennis, babysitting groups, coffee mornings, all that stuff). They exist in a bubble, and so we have nothing to compare them with. This has the happy side-effect of making the stories effectively undateable, despite Dudley’s passion for videos and cine-cameras. We know what the Dursleys think is normal, because they enforce normality so vigorously, and because JK Rowling creates a very careful stage set for their normality that we hardly think to question it. However, Harry’s loneliness is strong enough for us to feel sad at the looming prospect of teenage bullying, and at the inexplicability of his bizarre miserable life. The episode of the disappearing glass, and the snake that wants to go to Brazil, comes as a joyful release. It’s a suddenly-opening door out of the misery, a revelation of glorious possibilities.

Clever reversed Japanese version
Clever reversed-out version for the Chinese market

Rowling makes us wait for the next instalment of gloriousness, but now we know it’s out there, we are happy to wait. The outbreak of Hogwarts letters is certainly a lot of fun, but it’s more interesting  to realise that there is a plot: Mr and Mrs Dursley know what’s going on. For a brief moment Harry and Dudley are allies, or at least on the same side, trying to find out what is going on by jostling and shoving to listen at the door. Mr Dursley’s frantic attempt to evade the owls and the letters by taking his family to a rock in the middle of the sea is straight out of Roald Dahl, and that’s absolutely fine. Rowling has been criticised a lot for cherry-picking events from the great children’s novels of the twentieth century, but since children’s fiction is largely the retelling of myth, she’s got as much right as anyone to tell these stories in whatever patchwork she wants. It all makes good, warm, readable cloth.

Potter 1 3The arrival of Hagrid is THE moment. This is when we remember the puzzling episode at the very beginning of the novel, where Hagrid hands over Harry to Dumbledore, and we read the three-way conversation about what had just happened to You Know Who. None of that is recalled while we’re reading about Harry and the Dursleys, because the tone in this part of the novel is different, and we didn’t understand what they were talking about in any case. But now Hagrid will explain, in words and actions, all the way to Diagon Alley, and we are enthralled. The revelation of the magical world’s existence is almost as much delight as we can take. The shopping for magical school supplies and all that it tells us about the depth and detail of this world, how magic replaces Muggle arrangements and practical inventions, the explosion of wonder that is the existence of Hogwarts itself – all this is what makes The Philosopher’s Stone a winner. Rowling doesn’t skimp on her writing style either: she shows what she means, she doesn’t just tell, so her storytelling is economical, and efficient, underneath the marvellous invention. Most cleverly of all, every time a concept or a word or an action appears in the narrative that a child won’t understand, she explains it in the next sentence. Time and again I noticed this when reading the early novels aloud: just when my children twitched an eyebrow or said, ‘but what does that mean …?’, the explanation was in the next line.

Potter 1 5So we’ve had the revelation that Harry is not Cinderella, he is a person with a past and a family, and a community who love him and want to welcome him back. This is filling our hearts with warm fuzziness. But we cannot relax, because there is also darkness. Much nastier than Cruelty, Ignorance and Snobbery, as represented by the Dursleys, Harry encounters Bigotry and Arrogance, in Draco Malfoy. There is also Weirdness, with the effusiveness of the witches’ and wizards’ welcome in the Leaky Cauldron, and Deep Strangeness in Gringotts. Hagrid won’t explain or Harry doesn’t ask, which is maddening because there is so much that we want to understand about this world. We can see plot possibilities stretching ahead, quite apart from the question of whether Voldemort is dead or not (we don’t care too much about Voldemort at this point, not having met him personally). Harry’s first act alone in his new world, after being dumped at King’s Cross and abandoned by Uncle Vernon – a real act of cruelty – is to make friends, and so the joyous warm fuzziness returns with Mrs Weasley and a family of surrogate Weasley brothers, and sister. The train is another deep pleasure: I love long train journeys up and down the length of Britain, because of the romance of running through so much different countryside. I’ve always wanted to do it in one go, London to Inverness without any stops, just like the Hogwarts Express. I’ve always assumed that Hogwarts is somewhere near Inverness, which would make it a very long journey indeed, especially beginning at 11 in the morning.

Potter 1 6I’ll skip over the joys of the Sorting Hat, the moving staircases and paintings in Hogwarts, the lessons and the teachers, and the daily use of a magic wand – all that is delightful and we know it. I’m interested in the plotting around the mystery, which we do need. It reveals how Harry, Ron and Hermione measure up to their peers and their teachers in skills and moral courage, and opens up the first stage in understanding the greater plot of the series to rational, adult scrutiny. First, the hiding of a world-class deadly secret in a school to be guarded by a giant three-headed dog and a wandering troll, seems downright irresponsible, unless the close proximity of so many Magical Arts teachers was a guarantee of safety.

I have other questions. Was the status of teaching among the magical community particularly high? We don’t hear anything about a magical university, for example, at this very early stage in the Potterverse, and I’ve only just come across a reference to it in the last few months, so do the intellectuals and research-active witches and wizards gravitate naturally to the schools to teach? I also have a problem with the Forest, from which all students are banned (quite rightly, as it is full of seriously deep magic), but why are first-years are taken to patrol it, practically alone, at night, as a detention punishment? That makes no sense at all. Is Hermione really the only swot at Hogwarts? She’s a terrific caricature of the most irritating keen student ever, so perhaps her example warned anyone else in her league to play it cool.

This was the cover that revolutionised publishing to let them print multiple copies of the same book in different covers, and reach new uadiences: in this case, adults with the excuse of reading HP to children.
This was the cover that revolutionised publishing to let them print multiple copies of the same book in different covers, and reach a new market of adults lacking the excuse of reading HP to children.

And finally, the feasts, and the food that can be conjured up: it is an axiom of fantasy writing, and also the laws of physics, that nothing can be created from nothing. All matter must come from somewhere to appear somewhere else: Ben Aaronovitch explores this particularly well in his Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, as a direct riposte to Rowling, I think. Similarly, magical food is by definition dangerous: think of all the stories where a character eats something magical and falls asleep for a hundred years, or turns into something odd and strange. Why is the Hogwarts magical food wholesome, delicious and safe? Where do the ingredients for the Hogwarts meals and other feasts and snacks come from, delivered to the house elves in the kitchens, whom we haven’t met yet?

That is probably the best thing about this really excellent novel, that there is so much more to discover about the world and its workings. The films focus on Harry and the Voldemort plot: I’d rather stay in the school and explore that. Which I will do, next week, with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

 

 

Rampaging in the Pyrenees: Dornford Yates’s Adèle and Co.

Yates 1Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is Y, and today’s author’s name really begins with M, but his pen-name, by which he was made famous from the 1920s, begins with Y. Dornford Yates was the pseudonym of Cecil William Mercer, and he was famous for two kinds of fiction. The first were his comic short stories which are, frankly and honestly, laugh-out-loud funnier than anything his contemporary P G Wodehouse ever wrote. The second are his tough, gritted teeth, stiff-upper-lip thrillers, which specialise in two-chapter car chases and episodes of ludicrous physical endurance. There is a third category in his fiction, the conservative melodrama of tight-lipped passion (see my post on one of these from April), but he wrote these less often when he realised how much better his readers liked the comic stories and thrillers. The short stories were populated by a family of five cousins, and various friends, and the book I‘m talking about today is the first full-length novel Yates wrote featuring these characters.

Yates 2They are known as the Berries, because the head of their family is Berry, Bertram Pleydell, who is married to Daphne, his cousin. Her brother is Boy Pleydell, and these three live together with two other cousins, Jonah and Jill Mansel. Berry is a comic buffoon of genius. Daphne is his foil with quite a lot of spirit of her own: she throws bread rolls at her husband when he is being socially appalling. Boy is a suave ladies’ man, a lawyer and a novelist, and Yates’ alter ego. Jonah is the hero of most of the thrillers, where he has a more dictatorial character, but in the comic fiction he is their action man. Jill is the baby of the family, and is persistently portrayed as infantile even in her middle-aged widowhood, deep into the 1950s. The really strange thing about these cousins is not that they live together as a tight family unit, but that no-one else is allowed to join for very long. After innumerable flirtations, Boy finally marries the American girl Adèle, but she leaves him some time in the late 1920s, for no apparent reason (though if I were Adèle I’d have been driven off by his pompousness years before: I probably wouldn’t even have married him). Jill marries an Italian Duke and has twins, but all three conveniently die in a plane crash leaving Boy to marry Jill, thus completing the circle of near-incestuous relations. Jonah doesn’t marry, but he did have a heavy affair with Adèle in at least one of the novels, so that’s OK. There’s nothing like keeping it in the family.

Yates 5You’ll have noticed that for such a scenario to be accepted by readers, realism is not part of the deal. This set of characters live in a fantasy world based on Edwardian and Victorian nostalgia but set in a very glamorous present-day with fabulous cars and lovely houses. The stories are wish-fulfilment fantasies where the women are beautiful and obedient, and the men are witty and powerful. They all live on country estates, or move to France when the weather, the Labour government and income tax make life unbearable. The characters are ageless. Their servants are almost all silent and obedient. Jonah’s servants loyally risk their lives in every book they appear in. Their friends all marry and are beautiful. These friends do not include anyone who is not white, English, or American, from the gentry class and upwards. Children simply do not happen, apart from Jill’s twins, and, as I said, they’re killed off early. Yates must have realised that her children were simply not a plausible part of Jill’s life, since she routinely left them with the ducal nurse in another country while she spent long summers with her cousins doing nothing but have adventures and fall about laughing. One can see the appeal, of course, but it is a bit of a shock when Yates disposes of toddlers so callously. He does this in the thrillers as well, to get rid of a hard-won wife so his hero can start the flirting game all over again. The winning of the women must have been much more fun to write than life with a wife. When you read Dornford Yates you are certainly reading high-quality entertainment, but you are also reading a curious variety of fantasy fiction where the values of the present are consistently inferior to a very selective view of chivalry and romance.

Yates 3So, this novel is called Adèle and Co. I recommend it to you not just because it is screamingly funny in many episodes, or because the action sequences are nail-biting and brilliantly told. I think it is an excellent Yates taster, a good way to try him out. You can experience the full glory of Berry’s outrageous behaviour, Boy’s driving, and Jonah’s tactical planning. There is an audacious theft of fabulous jewels; there is a terrifying master villain; there is a fascinating scene in a thieves’ bar called The Wet Flag where Jonah enquires about some missing emerald bracelets and is told, ‘Sweaty knows them cuffs’. There are also some immortal sequences: where Boy and Berry case a joint and have scatologically foul water thrown at them from above; where Berry is forced to entertain a bishop for three hours unaided; and where Berry, Boy and Piers dress up in drag with crude make-up to diddle a villain. We are given exciting racing scenes in the Normandy countryside, where cars are hijacked, and dips in the road give cover to rapid changeovers. An incriminating letter is found in a hollow tree, and is joined by a wasps’ nest, which makes the later retrieval of the latter quite difficult. We do a lot of sightseeing in the northern Pyrenees, where the dips in the road allow traps to be set and more showdowns to take place. The novel is a riot of journeys and witty conversations, and an awful lot of white-knuckled driving.

Yates 4Underlying all this action are the fascinating social norms of the day. Boy, Berry and Jonah are desperately chivalric towards women, and the women are perpetually dainty, well-turned out and plucky. The women also have glorious hair, huge eyes, and tiny feet which are perfectly shod. Yates had a particular thing about small feet and grey eyes in his heroines. Not being properly dressed was a dangerous situation in many of the stories, since this would risk social chaos. The laws of hospitality are extremely important. In Adèle and Co the principal crime of the villain, Casca Palk, is not that he engineered the theft of the women’s jewels and the men’s cuff-links, but that he was offered hospitality by these women and repaid them by taking the jewels off their necks. Somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d merely stolen the jewels from the bank: the fact that the thief was in the women’s private sitting-room, and that the thief’s hands had been around their necks, makes Yates incandescently angry. In the Yates world, the physical violation of women, even by just a touch or a look, was a more serious crime than murder. In a later novel, Perishable Goods, Adèle has been kidnapped, and Jonah leads her rescue party. As a reminder that time is getting on and that the ransom hasn’t been paid, Adèle’s hair is sent to Boy in a box. When her white blouse is offered (and it would be white, wouldn’t it?) as a more urgent reminder of the ransom, Jonah hangs the man who brought it. His servants dig the grave. Yates’ characters played for keeps, and had no compunction when they thought they were in the right in terms of their own rules of civilisation. When Yates wanted to circumvent the law as well, he just invented a new country and their laws as well.

Yates 6One of the joys of reading Yates is his spectacular inventiveness with names. He invents personal names that not so much suggest that person’s character, but wave that person’s character around on a banner. His heroes and heroines all have old English names suggesting antiquity, royalty, heritage, medieval values, and country manors. Their names are Bagot, Festival, Madrigal, Crecy, Fairie, Willoughby, Malory, Persimmon, Bohun, Rage, Medallion, Pendragon, Pomeroy and Seneschal. The names of characters of whom he does not want us to approve are similarly descriptive: Pump, Mrs Drinkabeer Stoat, and Warthog. His place names are even less restrained, and are mostly heavy-handed metaphors for a similar ancientry, including Holy Brush, Chancery, White Ladies, Hammercloth Down, Castle Breathless, Peering Gap, Garter Spinney, Stomacher Gap, Sweeting Valley and Witchery Drive. It’s very heady stuff.

One caveat before you plunge into Yates: in revisiting the 1920s, you are also leaving the cultural value system of the twenty-first century and entering a different world, where racism, anti-Semitism and sexism was a completely normal part of the cultural environment. Every writer of that period thought and wrote in those terms, to a greater or lesser degree: you simply can’t avoid it, and it is incorrect to demand the standards of our day to fiction written nearly 100 years ago. Yates is no better than most of his contemporaries, by our standards, and he is certainly not the worst. But if you’re not used to this kind of thing, you may need to take a deep breath before diving in. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

 

Lindsey Davis, Ancient Rome and Marcus Didius Falco

Falco 1In 1990 I bought a book to read on the way home on the train, and when I got there I wasn’t in London, but in Londinium, for such was the power of Lindsey Davis’s first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs. I read her novels addictively for years. My favourite is not one of the 20 Falco novels, but the first novel she wrote, not published until some years after Falco became a hit, The Course of Honour, from 1997. In that novel  – I will get to Falco in a minute, but I’ve got to tell you about this one first  –  we hear about probably the most exciting, dramatic and crowdedly ruled years in Ancient Rome, from the reign of Tiberius to the accession of Vespasian. It overlaps quite a lot with the territory covered by Robert Graves in his Claudius novels, but goes right past Nero and into the Flavians.

DavisThe charm of The Course of Honour is due to its narrator, the strong-willed Caenis, who began her working life as a clerk, and became a secretary, first as a slave and later as a freedwoman, to the Emperor Claudius’s mother, Antonia Minor. Apparently Lindsey Davis was inspired by a line from Suetonius which noted that Vespasian had had a mistress called Caenis, formerly one of Antonia’s secretaries. Her story of the secretary who survived close proximity to the murderous palaces and politics of Ancient Rome, is also a wonderful, witty, passionate love story. This novel gave her the idea to write the Falco novels, but I have reread The Course of Honour more often than any Falco because it is funny, thrilling, and deeply absorbing in how Davis describes daily life in Ancient Rome as seen and lived by a woman. The feminist possibilities in this idea are many and looming, but thankfully Davis just gets on and tells her story, without getting lured into anachronistic consciousness-raising, of what it could have been like for a woman in Caenis’s position to survive in Ancient Rome. It is a superb novel about politics and murder in Ancient Rome seen from a woman’s perspective.

Falco 2But now I shall tell you about Falco, since I have just begun a leisured re-read of the series from the beginning. Marcus Didius Falco is a former Roman army soldier, he lives in Rome, he looks after the tiny bundle of snapping fury that is his mother, he avoids when he can his shifty and probably criminal auctioneer father Geminus, he lives in a seriously grotty slum six floors up, and his best friend Lucius Petronius is a policeman. We first meet him in the early years of the rule of Vespasian. Falco is a private informer, which means that he investigates cases for hire, which means that he is a private detective. Lindsey Davis’s brilliant idea was to combine archaeology and Latin history and literature, with the hard-boiled detective novel genre in the style of Raymond Chandler. But Falco is lots better than Philip Marlowe.

Falco 3He’s lovable, for a start. Falco has Marlowe’s ethics combined with high standards, and is an excellent man in a fight, but he also gets bullied by his mother and sisters, and is sneered at by all his nephews and nieces and revolting brothers-in-law. He is, in fact, the put-upon Roman family man who doesn’t have a family of his own just yet (though he looks after his dead brother’s illegitimate daughter and her feckless mother), but his sense of family responsibility is very strong. In The Silver Pigs he meets Helena Justina, an angry senator’s daughter whom he is hired to escort home to Rome from that muddy and wet Empire outpost called Britain, and he falls in love. They spend several novels having delightful arguments and falling in and out of bed, and are in fact destined to be together for ever. Not just as a married couple, mind, but as professional partners in detecting crime.

Falco 4In The Silver Pigs we learn about the importation of spices, the failure of the Roman sewage system, lead mining in the Mendips (Falco goes to Britain to solve a case of large-scale embezzlement, not just to be an imperial courier) and how brothels work. In its sequel, Shadows in Bronze, Falco goes on holiday with Petro and his family to Naples, and sells lead piping as a sideline to track down imperial plotters, and ends up fighting Helena’s unfortunately vile husband in a mansion stuffed with smashable treasures. Next, in Venus in Copper (I hope you are noticing a theme with the book titles so far), Falco solves a series of murders and eats a great many sticky cakes. We learn a lot about the catering and slave side of suburban villa life, and how rickety some old buildings could be. This is the one where Falco entertains Helena and his entire family, plus the Emperor’s son Titus, to a dinner of a turbot served in a Gaulish shield, probably my favourite Falco scene of all. In The Iron Hand of Mars (more metal!) Falco and Helena go north to the uncivilised German border regions to buy some new Red Samian ware dishes and casseroles for their new house, hunt down a lost legion’s standard, and get Helena’s nice young army officer brother mixed up with a forest prophetess.

Falco 5And so it goes on. The titles get very silly at times – my personal favourite is Three Hands in the Fountain, about an axe murderer and the public aqueduct – and the settings give you a tour of the Roman Empire. We go to Spain in A Dying Light in Corduba, to Syria for Last Act in Palmyra, and Britain, three times, in The Silver Pigs, as mentioned, and also in The Body in the Bath House and The Jupiter Myth. We learn, most entertainingly, about the professions one could practice in Ancient Rome: journalism, in Scandal Takes a Holiday, publishing, in Ode to a Banker, and the legal profession, in The Accusers. Most of the novels have at least one episode in Ancient Rome, so those of you with a passion for tracing events as they happen in Ancient Roman streets will love these novels. But there is also a strong literary quality to Lindsey Davis’s writing: she is no mere hack writer churning out more of the same. She’s a clever technician and an excellent historical novelist.

Falco 6To start with, she’s using a classic form in new ways. As her website says, some of the novels come about because she deliberately sets out write specific types of detective fiction: Time to Depart is a police procedural, but, as she points out on her website, in Ancient Rome the fire brigade, or the vigiles, were the equivalent of the police, so Time to Depart is really a Fire Brigade procedural, and very good it is too.  Venus in Copper is, as she says, a ‘classic private eye dilemma’. In many of the novels Falco is pursued by women after his good will and favours, although we know he’s got Helena Justina waiting at home, or, more likely, around the corner doing her share of the investigation, so we observe with interest how he removes himself from these situations. He’s a very faithful and loyal private eye, and his moral core is the toughest part of him, which gives added gravitas to the stories. We know that he will never let us, or Helena, down, although the circumstances might. Lindsey Davis does not mess about with postmodernist cynicism or grubby shades of grey in place of black or white. Her characters have heaps of nuance, and they do good and bad things all at the same time, but we always know in her novels where the line between good and bad is drawn. Every character has a choice to step over that line, or not, and as a reader I find that so reassuring. It is why the detective novel genre exists: it restores order, finds the wrong-doer, explains why X had to die, and sometimes avenges the victim.

Falco 7Davis’s hard-boiled narrative technique is beautifully balanced. It gives more than the standard model because Falco doesn’t take himself seriously all the time, unlike poor gloomy tedious Philip Marlowe, and so the novels can switch unexpectedly from high farce to serious sadness in half a line. The hard-boiled habit of saying ‘I knew then that I was going to die’ by a narrative voice relating a story in the past tense, thus proving, logically, that she or he did not die, is a delicious paradox that no reader will bother trying to unravel, because the power in reading ‘I knew then that I was going to die’ is quite enough to sweep us into the next dramatic episode without sane reflection. Just get on and give us the story. Davis is very, very good at that. She is also mercilessly good at a more advanced variant of the same technique, of Falco insisting that X is X, and then the story immediately taking a twist to show us that, no, X is Y. Falco’s utter confidence in his statements is simply dramatic tale-telling, in the past tense, that we believe completely, because our disbelief has not so much been suspended, but has been dropped out of a tenth-floor window. The utter conviction in her storytelling sets us up to believe again and again and again. It’s roller-coaster story-telling, and I love it. Read Lindsey Davis and you will love Falco, and love her version of Ancient Rome.

Lindsey Davis’s website gives full details of The Course of Honour, all the Falco books, and also her new series about Albia, Falco’s adopted daughter from Britain who takes up detecting, which I’m not warming to quite so enthusiastically. I may have to read more of them before reporting back on those.

(This is an edited version of a podcast from Really Like This Book, because I’m rereading Falco now and had said most of what I wanted to say in the pod.)