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"Ode to a Banker" maintains Lindsey Davis' formidable reputation for writing some of the most enjoyable historical fiction around. As ever, we follow the continuing (mis)adventures of first century AD private informer Marcus Didius Falco (first encountered in "The Silver Pigs"), his high-born wife (more or less) Helena Justina, and of course his quite appalling family - overbearing Ma, Del Boy prototype Pa and assorted siblings and hangers on. The story opens with Falco hoping (not all that expectantly) for a quiet life. His new house on the western outskirts of the city is almost ready (despite the efforts of Gloccus and Cotta, hopeless engineers to the gentry), and he has immersed himself in the world of poetry (regular readers will remember his attempts at being a playwright in "Last Act in Palmyra"). Of course, this being Falco, a quiet life is the last thing he will be getting. For some reason ("crazy. Drunk too, maybe", he muses), he has allowed himself to appear at a public poetry reading, in the company of a high-flying senator, Rutilius Gallicus. Although the senator's influence has insured a prestigious venue (the Auditorium, no less), the reality of Roman politics means that Gallicus is certain to take the lion's share of the limelight. Hmm. "Lion's share." Perhaps that was a somewhat unfortunate turn of phrase. For Gallicus was most recently encountered (in "Two for the Lions") at his post in the north African province of Tripolitania, having condemned to the arena some wine-sodden lunatic who had been reeling about, screaming blasphemies at the local gods. Naturally, the condemned man turned out to be Falco's hopeless brother-in-law Famia, and equally naturally Falco himself was working with Gallicus at the time, so had to sit through the whole grisly spectacle. Given this background, Falco is not desperately surprised when things take a t
urn for the worse at the recital, with the arrival of none other than Domitian Caesar, Emperor Vespasian's younger son, along with a bunch of dubious-looking gatecrashers. Domitian himself was a man with whom our hero had, to say the least, an uneasy relationship - some years before, Falco had proved him a murderer, although the affair had been hushed up because of Domitian's status - but the real trouble here is in the none too attractive from of one Aurelius Chrysippus, scriptorium proprietor and patron of the arts... and soon to be discovered on the floor of his library, murdered in a particularly revolting manner. Of course, patrons of literature are always liable to be knocked on the head by disgruntled authors fed up with rejection slips (you know the form: "no call for iambic pentameter these days, squire. A nice commentary, now, that's what you want to be writing"), but the problem in this case is the sheer quantity of suspects for Chrysippus' murder. Given the seeming impossibility of the task, naturally good old Didius Falco is called upon to sort out the mess. Or rather, messes. For Anacrites, Vespasian's Chief Spy, knows of Famia's demise (for reasons which are explained in "Two for the Lions"), and is trying for all he is worth to get it on with Famia's widow, and Falco's youngest (and least revolting) sister, Maia. Anacrites is probably a more dangerous than all the Chrisippus suspects put together - he has already tried to have Falco killed once, his motto might well be similar to Jim Hacker's Prime Minister's: "in defeat, malice. In victory, revenge". Falco needs to be extremely careful, especially since the murky world of banking is involved as well... As usual with Lindsey Davis' writing, it is the brilliant characterisation, allied to the ability to create a picture of a living (if it's lucky), breathing (ditto) Rome, that makes "Ode to a
Banker". The inhabitants - perhaps a better word would be "denizens" of the colourful, treacherous roman capital are more than mere ciphers (well, maybe not the bankers' enforcers - they're just very large) - they are, to use a cliché, "real people" with conflicting emotions, divided loyalties and guilty secrets like anyone else. Davis is unafraid to kill off quite significant characters (as well as Famia, one of Falco's sisters has already bitten the dust), and even the principals can be grievously injured (Helena Justina seems to have endured more than her share of ill luck). This helps to avoid the unsatisfactory situation whereby the manifold dangers and diseases of Imperial Rome pass by the stories' heroes as though they had been sprayed with some form of literary insect repellent. All this comes as no surprise given Davis' detailed knowledge of the minutiae of Roman life. Although she will always put the needs of the narrative above some tiny and unimportant detail of, for example, a legionary's helmet strap, what matters is the *persuasiveness* of what she writes, and on that score there is no question of her ability - at no time does the reader feel that they are being cheated, and that the book has transferred from first century "reality" to some convenient fantasy world. The recent Falco books such as"Ode to a Banker" no longer include, as did some earlier editions, a diagram depicting Falco's family tree (and this is a sad loss), with details of Marcus' somewhat unhinged relations (witness his two uncles. What? Three? Shhh - nobody ever talks about *him*...). Compensation, though, is to be had in the fact that the map of Imperial Rome has finally been expanded to a sensible size, a godsend to those of us who have squinted at the tiny, smudgy reproductions in some of the earlier paperbacks especially. A most enjoyable part of any Falco novel is the Drama
tis Personae (for some reason Anglicised in "Ode to a Banker" to Principal Characters). This is a tremendously useful resource, and one should always keep a bookmark here, in order to check whether the dodgy character just encountered falling under a chariot is likely to have been Pisarchus ("a shipping magnate who may be sunk"), Philomelus ("his son, a drudge with a dream") or even - oh blissful hope - Anacrites himself ("a low lyer with variable interests"). A few people have opined that the series is losing a little momentum, and that Falco is becoming too well-off to keep his "man of the streets" persona convincing. Perhaps there is something in that - it's fair to say that there are better novels in the series than this one - but even a lesser book from Lindsey Davis is preferable to most other writing in the genre. It's always worth having a gander at the author's website (www.lindseydavis.co.uk), which has a good deal of interesting background information on the novels, and the appropriately titled Forum. This is a must-read, as it illustrates Davis' no-nonsense character perfectly - witness her withering reply to an American reader who questioned whether a character could possibly have worn ears of corn, because maize was awfully tall - surely she meant "frumentum"? Oh, and whatever you do, *don't* suggest future storylines - she insists deciding plotlines entirely by herself, and will not use anything other people come up with. Despite the large amount of vigorous prose on her website, Davis is not a woman who enjoys blathering on about herself - her latest Falco book, "A Body in the Bathhouse", has no autobiographical detail whatsoever (at least in the paperback), and the couple of lines allotted to the "About the Author" space in "Ode to a Banker", plus the black-and-white photo (she looks... reassuringly normal, I think
is the phrase) practically amount to reckless indulgence by her standards. Who cares about that, though? What matters in a story is the quality of the writing itself, and here Lindsey Davis has proven herself to be amongst the first rank of historical novelists. To sum up, I can do no better than to quote the late, great Ellis Peters, a fan of Davis' early work: "she brings Imperial Rome to life".