on 31 March 2012
Having just devoured and reviewed Lindsey Davis' latest book, 'Master and God', I decided to go back to the beginning of my acquaintance with a favourite author, and re-read 'The Silver Pigs'. And if ever a book wins you over to the hero's side (hauls you into the racing, thrilling plot) from the first lines, this is it. It was these words that hooked me: 'Some men are born lucky; others are called Didius Falco'. I was never going to not love a narrator as self-deprecatingly funny as he is.
Marcus Didius Falco - ex-legionary, Aventine backstreet boy, Imperial Rome's answer to a 1940's private eye, poet. Surviving on boring divorce and insurance work, and up to his eyes in his raucous Roman family (headed up by one fearsome Italian mamma). He's kept sane by his sense of humour, his old army buddy Petronius, and his cheerful, scattergun approach to girls. (There are moments when any female reader won't know if she wants to smack him in the eye...or do something else entirely). Falco is just getting on with the only life open to him, as best he knows how, living in the moment and, invariably, in trouble. And then a girl - terrified - runs right into him (well, almost), yells, and changes his life forever. And in a way so unexpected, few readers will see it coming.
This is the real novelty of Davis' creation; not just the historical setting, but the breaking of rather a lot of crime genre rules. Not least by being so laugh-till-you're-sick funny it can be embarrassing to read her books on trains. But behind the humour, the puzzle, and the danger, there is something much more important; humanity, shoring up both the story and the character of Falco himself. He can plunge himself into chaos without breaking a sweat, but he is driven by real anger, contempt, for a system that allows the innocent and the poor to be so hurt and so cheated and so denied. Falco is no fool (except, perhaps, where women are concerned), he is hardened by war and failure, he is a cynic who is usally proved right; but he still knows, and cares, about the injustice and the greed and the violence. Just because he accepts the facts, does not mean he won't fight to change them.
As to plot, I won't do more than say that, in the course of this first adventure, Falco meets his match. He certainly meets his Waterloo! But through all of it - confused, hacked off, or just trying to stay alive - he stays true to his best nature. Falco is a good, and good-hearted, man. Great company. You could listen to him for days, never mind an hour or two.
The other great strength of Davis' books is that you slip into a familiarty with Imperial Rome that should be impossible if, like me, you are relying on the sparse knowledge accrued in Latin classes at school. She has all the best teachers' gift of slipping information into your memory bank without you ever being aware she's doing it. She uses the vernacular - of speech, of fashion, of food, of family life - the things by which we recognise our own world. So, right from the start, what you don't yet know doesn't matter; you can see Rome, feel the heat, breathe it, definitely you can smell it. For anyone familiar with Italian cities, or New York, it's like going home. Falco's world is, at heart, our world; just with togas not skinny jeans, lethal-sounding fish pickle sauces not ketchup. It's bursting at the seams with life. I half expect to trip over Joey Tribbiani ('How you doin'?'), models in those sunglasses only Italians ever really look cool in, seen-it-all traffic cops, the Sopranos. By which I mean that if any of you have heard great things about this book, but feel a little wary of its being historical, don't be. You'll be finding your way around in the dark in a heartbeat. Falco is that great a guide.
And speaking of dark, there is plenty of murk, and murder, in the depths of this book. Falco's world may be thrilling, but it's brutal and it's venal and it's terrifying. That you so enjoy your time there is down very much to the warm reality of Falco himself.
So please give this a go - and enjoy it. (And those of you who might be put off visiting the deepest depths of the West of England - again, please don't be. The Mendip Hills are, as described, bone-shatteringly cold and alarming in winter, but this is what your thermal underwear, and your thermos, and dialling 999 are for. If you ask the inhabitants, those Romans...yes, Falco, even you...the definition of Continental wussery! Sorry, but there it is).