In 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.
The 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.
But 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.
He’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.
In 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.
And 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.
To 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.
Davis’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.)