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Many, if not most, successful book series these days end up having some sort of "companion" written to accompany them. In some cases these are straightforward and rather uninspired alphabetical lists of every person, place or object that has ever featured in the series in question. In others, the generally alphabetical format is followed but a bit more verve is on display in the writing; The Discworld Companion comes to mind as an example of this style done well. In still others, however, the author takes a very different approach...
The Falco Companion is a superb example of this third way. For a start, it is actually written by Lindsey Davis, the author of the wonderful novel series starring Marcus Didius Falco, first century private eye. This is not always the best way with such books, but when it comes to Davis her personality is so strong, and so well known and (mostly) loved by her devoted readers, that works brilliantly. Anyone who has enjoyed her website at lindseydavis.com will know just what I mean if I say that the style is very reminiscent of what you can read there.
The Companion is written, as a perfectly judged comment in an Amazon review has it, "as a letter to a friend". Davis inspires great loyalty in her readers, and the way in which she imprints her personality on to her writing is a major part of the reason why. We start off with a short autobiographical section, something which Davis has never undertaken before, and this is gripping, revealing her remarkable (though sometimes very unhappy) upbringing and her equally remarkable (and, again, sometimes unhappy) family history. She says here that this is as much autobiography as she ever intends to write, but she packs more into a dozen pages than an awful lot of memoirs manage in thirty times that number.
After this we get a section about writing itself, how Davis does her research, and so on. Her trademark opinionated style makes itself felt here, in particular in "A Sharp Discourse on 'Errors'", in which she makes quite clear that she would much rather write as she does and risk the occasional mistake than retreat into "safe, sterile pedantry". I am sure that most Falco fans will be cheering as they read this; the series works so well because it places the telling of a good story first. There is, or used to be, a literary prize called the "Thumping Good Read" award. That's what Davis writes, not lightly fictionalised textbooks.
We then move on to sections dealing with the novels, characters, places and other features of Roman life such as crime, going to the baths and food. As I say, these are not intended to be exhaustive lists of everything that's been seen in the twenty books so far (I say "so far", but see later) but rather they have a much more discursive style. They come complete with occasional digressions - and figurative elbows are applied where necessary! - and a deceptively great amount of "behind the scenes" information which fleshes out Falco's world even more than the books have already done.
There is a rather unexpected (even to Davis) piece right at the end of the book in which she briefly muses on where Falco might go now. Davis has had some difficult events to cope with in recent years, in particular the death of her long-time companion Richard. (As an aside, I found it rather touching how she protects his privacy by never mentioning his surname.) Her editor at Random House also resigned after many years working on the Falco books; we are not told why, but it is clear that Davis has been hit hard by this double loss, and is only being honest when she says that she really does not know what will happen now.
It is the little touches that make this book such fun, and which make it such a pleasure to leaf through. For example, Davis states adamantly that there will be no footnotes - but that doesn't mean that there won't be any in the wide inner margin! Among the diagrams scattered throughout the text are those which illustrate the workings of some of the more remarkable machines Falco has encountered on his travels, some of which are inspired by real ancient inventions; these are enormously interesting. And we even get a few fragments of "The Spook Who Spoke", a play title that will be very familiar to those who have read "Last Act in Palmyra". Wherever you turn, Davis has added fun and interest to what in lesser hands could have been a rather dry book.
There is very little to complain about in the Companion, and really nothing at all as far as the actual writing is concerned. I was, however, just a little disappointed with the quality of the photos that are scattered through the book. I don't mind their all being in black and white; that doesn't detract from their interest very much at all. However, perhaps because they are printed directly on to ordinary pages rather than collected in an insert of plates on glossier paper, the reproduction is sometimes rather poor by modern standards. That doesn't apply to the numerous diagrams, though, which are admirably clear.
This is absolutely *not* a book written for the newcomer to Davis's books, and she clearly did not intend it to be. I have read all but one of the Falco books, and intend to read the latest as soon as I can get my hands on it, and I really did feel that I needed all that knowledge to get the most out of the Companion.We are expected to know a fair bit about Falco himself, his family, his situation etc before starting. It is, in short, a book for the devoted fan, not a background introduction. Judged by that criterion, and even allowing for the slightly disappointing photo reproduction, this book is an absolute triumph.