Philip Marlowe in Ancient Rome – I’m sold.
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis is the first in a long-running series of historical crime novels set in Flavian-era Ancient Rome, starring rough-edged ‘informer’ Marcus Didius Falco.
This series is now 20 novels long and Davis is a well-established member of the crime writers’ fraternity, but somehow I had never really come across Falco on my literary travels, just as I had never before encountered Ellis Peters’ Cadfael. Well, I can safely say that I loved this first instalment, which will surely prove a gateway drug, and lead to me ploughing through the rest of them as soon as I get the chance.
Falco is a loveable and appealing protagonist – he’s a tough ex-soldier with a heart of gold and a wry sense of humour, a cynical outsider, a womaniser and a heavy drinker, and a grudgingly besotted uncle to his many nieces and nephews. He lives in a grotty tenement building on the Aventine Hill where he scrapes by with low-level private investigation work, puts the world to rights with his old comrade Petro, and endures the fussing of his battle-axe mother.
Into this world stumbles a beautiful young ingenue whose escape from a gang of would-be abductors sets into motion a gripping plot focused on a consignment of silver ingots nicked from a Britannia mine to fund a coup against the new emperor Vespasian. The story is full of political machinations, ingenuity, tragedy, and flirtatious back-and-forth between Falco and Helena Justina, his employer’s acerbic daughter.
Davis has a slightly peculiar style. I can’t really pin down exactly what bothered me about it at first, but it just seemed a bit stilted, as if it had been badly translated from a foreign language. But this feeling didn’t last long, as the vivid characters took shape and the fast-paced storyline got into gear.
While a good central mystery is of course vital, a crucial component of an ongoing crime series is, as I’ve said before, the recurring cast, and The Silver Pigs does a cracking job here of setting this up. Falco, Helena, Petro, and Falco’s mother, not to mention the real-life imperial family of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, are flawed, fun and interesting people who I wanted to spend time with, and this, more than anything else, is what will keep me reading Davis.
The teeming, sordid, magnificent city itself is also very well recreated on the page, and will I’m sure develop into a great noirish backdrop. Davis tosses in a few cheeky references to Raymond Chandler here and there to play up the sense of noir pastiche – Chandler fans will even notice the occasional line stolen from Marlowe and ‘Romanised’.
All in all The Silver Pigs is great fun, and an accomplished first step in a long series that I can’t wait to wade into.
Arrow | 2008 | 352p | Paperback | Buy here