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Having always been a lover of history, I found myself reading more and more historical fiction. The problem was that there was always a plethora of periods in a gaggle of genres and I found myself somewhat spoilt for choice. Like other people, I had read the "Brother Cadfael" mysteries and found that I really enjoyed the crime genre. So, that was settled. Historical crime fiction it would be. Narrowed down it was but it took a chance conversation to lead me to the direction of this book. Over coffee, a friend and I discussed our current reading and he happened to mention a pair of authors who wrote Roman crime fiction.
Straight after, I popped down to my local bookshop. The first author's name I couldn't remember (it was Stephen Saylor but that's a different review!) So, I grabbed a copy of the first in the series. Best of all, for me, was that there were already a considerable number in the series, so taking care of a good few hours if I enjoyed it.
I began reading and, I have to say, I was hooked. To me, the characters were the strongest part of the book. The main cast were well defined and were complete with the number of foibles one would expect with real people. Falco, the lead, would not be out of place in a gumshoe film set in prohibition era America, as he is initially portrayed as one with an eye for the ladies and has a good range of amusing banter to throw around. However, that is too much of a simplification. As the book (and series) progress you get to see more of the depth of this character and you realise how his surroundings have created the person he is. Hard-edged but with a deep sense of loyalty to those things he believes in - friends, family and, occasionally, the establishment. He comes from the bottom of the free citizen ladder and works in about the lowest regarded job in the Empire, namely that of an informer (loosely the same as a private detective but with some significant differences.)
Where the book really blossoms is in the depth of the supporting cast. The juxtaposition of Falco and the Senatorial Helena Justina gives huge scope for complex interplay between the characters and gives the author an opportunity to immerse you in details of Roman social classes without seeming to ram it down your throat. Other characters include his best friend and fellow chancer, who works for the Vigiles (firemen) and a whole slew of dysfunctional family members who, when they all get together, remind me all too well of certain Christmas gatherings of my own clan...
Having said that the characters could be planted in other time periods, I would not want anyone to think that the setting of the book was weak or ill-researched. The descriptions of the locations were vivid and gave a good feel for the Roman world of this time. Maps and information given ensured that a complete novice of the time period had enough information to help them understand where events took place and gave a good visual reference that could be referred to as the book progressed. There was equally enough genuine research detail to interest a more knowledgeable audience. My degree in Ancient History and Archaeology was a while ago now but I have vivid recollections of an archaeological excavation I was working on at the Dolaucothi Roman gold mines in Wales. Details from one section of this book certainly jelled well with what I had remembered and added to my reading enjoyment but you really do not have to have any kind of pre-knowledge to enjoy it.
I am not going to go into much detail about the plot. The blurb on the back of the book gives enough away without me adding to it. However, as commented, it does need some clarification to enable readers to make an informed choice. Falco is approached by a client outside his normal circles and, after some hesitation, he is drawn into investigating a death and a plot which threatens the Empire. Worst of all for Falco is that he is forced to travel to the armpit of the Empire - Britannia! Along the way we are given an insight into the lives of those who do not always make the history books, namely the lower classes. The story gallops along and Falco is left reeling by the implications of what he discovers. Who can he trust in the web of lies that he uncovers? Let me just say that there was more than enough complexity and scope in the story to make it believable enough to immerse myself into for a few hours and that, ultimately, is all I can ask of a book.
Would I recommend this to anyone? Perhaps I can answer by saying that I am currently reading book 20 and leave you to draw your own conclusions. What I would say is that if you are wanting a dry description of Roman life then this isn't the book for you. If you want a fast-paced and, above-all, fun adventure, with characters you can truly begin to care about then this is the one. Just don't blame me when you find yourself having to buy the other 19.
*** The Author ***
This is the first book in Lindsey Davis's series about Marcus Didius Falco, a private informer in Rome circa AD 70. She has written 19 so far, but hopefully there are even more to come.
Her next novel, due to be published in September, is not a Falco book though. It is Rebels and Traitors set against the English Civil War.
While I think it is desirable to read the Falco series in order, it isn't essential, as each book in the series is self-contained, but I would advise reading The Silver Pigs first to understand how the team featured in the other books is formed. It is also one of the best in the series.
Falco has won this British author the Sherlock award for the Best Comic Detective.
The novels have been translated into many languages, and serialised for BBC radio, so audio versions of the books are also available.
*** Historical Accuracy ***
The author appears to have researched Emperor Vespasian's era well, but these books are primarily a form of escapist fiction, helped by their time and location to stand out from the run of the mill crime novels.
There is one probable factual inaccuracy though. The author tells us in an introduction that, since The Silver Pigs was first published in 1989, the consensus of opinion about how silver/lead ingots were made has changed. While I appreciated her pointing this out, it did not interfere with my enjoyment of the novel.
I found the detailed maps of Imperial Rome and Europe at the front of the book very useful, as I am not very familiar with this period of history. There is also an introduction to the main characters, including the factual Emperor Vespasian and his two sons, showing whether they are based in Rome or Britain, and their relevance to the story.
*** Main Characters ***
Like most great fictional private investigators, Falco loves to charm the ladies, but that is where the similarity to the norm stops. He has close family ties, including a domineering mother, plus the partner and child of his late brother. As his father has not been seen for many years, he assumes the position of breadwinner for the vulnerable members of the family.
As well as the poor girl his brother never found time to marry before his death in battle, Falco has five sisters, and many extended family members, which has resulted in him having plenty of young nephews, nieces and cousins. This can be a hindrance when they call out his name while he is supposed to be hidden, but these artful urchins can also come in handy for following suspected adulterers, while Falco slopes away to something more interesting.
I think that Falco comes over as a well-rounded character, as he is shown as having a variety of good and bad qualities.
The person I liked the best was Falco's domineering mother. I felt her heart was in the right place, even if some of her actions were humorously irritating to her family.
A senator's daughter and her family were the most intriguing, but I will leave readers to find out why.
Smaractus, a property speculator and owner of a gladiator's training school, is one of the personalities that I would least like to get involved with.
*** The Plot ***
The main plot of this novel involves political rivalry leading to theft and murder. Falco is enlisted to travel from his relatively comfortable, if simple, lifestyle in Rome, to work in harsh British mines.
There are inevitably violent scenes, but these are not dwelt on in more detail than is necessary for the plot.
*** Recommendation ***
This is the sort of light novel that I would most recommend for holiday reading, or train commuters, who may find it hard to concentrate on something heavier in the environment they find themselves in.
If you want to get stuck into a traditional crime thriller, or want to be force fed history lessons with your fiction, look elsewhere.
The Silver Pigs is an Ancient Roman sit-com aimed at those who would like a fast-paced, humorous, escapist read.
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd (7 Feb 2008)
Although not a great fan of historical crime fiction, I did really enjoy Ellis Peters Cadfael stories, and when I found out that there was a series of books by another author set in Ancient Rome, I thought that they would be worth a try. This book is the first in the series, which introduces us to private informer Didius Falco, who is the Ancient Roman equivalent of a modern day private investigator. Since this book was published in 1989, at least sixteen more books have followed and there is something of a cult following for Lindsey Davis books. Unfortunately, I struggled to appreciate the admiration others have for these books.
It is AD 70 and Marcus Didius Falco bumps into a beautiful young girl, sixteen year old Sosia Camillina. She is fleeing from two thugs who seem intent on doing her a good deal of damage. As the niece of a Senator, it seems the thugs have good reason for wanting to catch her, but when she is found dead, it is clear that the situation is much more serious than Falco originally presumed and involves some missing silver. He is recruited by the Senator to find out what has happened to the silver and to avenge his nieces death.
Following the trail, Falco travels to England, where he spends a period of months working as a miner in the deadly silver mines, with the aim of finding out where the leak of silver is occurring. On the plus side, he meets Helena Justina, the Senators daughter, with whom he has a love hate relationship. Will Falco find out what has happened to the silver? And what about the death of Sosia Camillina?
Falco is a potentially promising character that fails to deliver, at least in this book. Within about 2 pages, I had the feeling that I was reading the equivalent of a Carry On film. Falco could easily have been played by Sid James, so keen is he on a bit of slap and tickle. There is something vaguely offensive about this I think because the author is a woman and the way that she writes seems to almost condone sexist behaviour.
Falco doesnt find out clues as much as fall over them (literally). His constant quips, rather than being funny, just become annoying after a while. Overall, he is an annoying character that I would have been quite happy to see fall flat on his face.
Helena Justina is a marginally more likeable character. She is a recent divorcee, as a result of which she is very bitter and harsh in her attitude towards men. As such, she treats Falco with the scorn that he deserves. Nevertheless, she is still not a character to whom I warmed all that much. As the more serious character out of the two, she is very much a caricature and is therefore unbelievable.
I like to watch the odd Carry On film. They are meant to be daft and they meet expectations. With this book, I was expecting a serious piece of work based on scholarly research, something along the lines of Ellis Peters books, so I was a little surprised to find that the book was a comedy. That is still no reason to write it off Janet Evanovitchs books are a mixture of crime fiction and comedy and work really well. However, the constant quips and smart retorts in this book were just too frequent and I felt that the author was trying too hard to be funny, with the result that after the first few laughs, it just became very trying.
Perhaps another disadvantage of concentrating so hard on the humour is that the story just wasnt all that good. At times, I lost the gist of what was going on, although I have to admit that it could have been because I just wasnt all that interested. Whatever, I could have very easily put it down and not bothered to pick it up again it is only because I hate to give up on a book before I have reached the end.
The style of writing is, as can be expected, simple and light, which I must admit does suit the style of the book. Anything more literary would have been a waste of time.
I am not very familiar with Roman history and I have no idea how close to the truth the setting of the book is. Reading about the author in other reviews, it would seem that she has spent a lot of time trying to get the details right; this is very commendable, but unfortunately it is put to waste against such weak characters and plot.
I am well aware that this series has a great following and I have heard that it goes from strength to strength after this book. However, it is just not my cup of tea and I really cant recommend it.
The book is available from play.com for £5.59. It is published by Arrow and has 318 pages. ISBN: 0099414732
This is the first story in a mystery series set in Ancient Rome, featuring Marcus Didius Falco. The story sees Falco travelling to Britain in search of missing silver pigs, where he meets Helena Justina, and romance begins to blossom.