Monday, January 13, 2014

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.40 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.97 / 5.00

Life is never easy for Marcus Didius Falco. His father abandoned the family whilst Falco was still small, but old enough to realize that the man was a creep. He was a member of the glorious Second Legion during the most inglorious period of its long history, which took place in the dreadful province of Britannia, just to add insult to injury. His wonderful elder brother, Festus, made himself a hero by getting killed in Judea whilst leaving behind a daughter that he never even knew existed. His mother and five sisters split their time between scolding him, chasing off interesting women that he finds in wine shops and dumping various children on him for unspecified lengths of time. Since leaving the army, he has made a paltry living as an informer, chasing cheating spouses and finding lost cats. He has the worst apartment in the Aventine and is months behind in his rent, which leads to occasional, spontaneous beatings from his landlord’s hired gladiators. In his spare time he writes terrible poetry.

Then, one day, his luck seems to change. A beautiful young woman bumps into him in the Forum and he is duty bound to rescue her from the ugly brutes intent upon capturing her. She is not impressed by his apartment, or his poetry, but she does ask for his help and he is unwilling to say “No!” to such a pretty pair of eyes. Unfortunately, this leads him to a group of ruthless men bent upon treason and the replacement of jolly old Emperor Vespasian with a younger, more biddable, candidate. As the danger grows, he is forced to return to the one place in the Empire that he vowed to never visit again: Britannia. There he goes undercover in a silver mine to gather evidence and encounters the most annoying woman in the world: Helena Justina, daughter of a senator and the possessor of eyes the color of caramel.

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes. 
It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the streets unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist – and in the backstreets of the Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.

This is the very first book in a series that now runs to twenty volumes and sports its very own Official Companion. It has also spawned a spin off series featuring Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Alba: the second title in this series is published later this year.

Apart from the obvious attraction of a series set in Ancient Rome, the Falco books have a great voice, as you can see above. The character of Falco draws very heavily on those down-at-heel, sarcastic and nihilistic Private Investigators that we all saw in black and white movies back in the day. He owes a great deal to the likes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but does deviate from them in significant ways. He shares the typical PI background of military service and has a friend in local law enforcement, Petronius Longus, the Captain of the local Watch patrol. He also gets beaten on a regular basis and can usually handle himself in a dirty fight, using his witty repartee to really annoy his opponents. He is even susceptible to dangerous women, although he usually has to make do with cheap Libyan dancers.

However, he is not suave or poised, mostly due to the above-mentioned beatings and his persistent poverty. He is also plagued by an over-abundance of family members, rather than being a lonely and isolated figure. However, his family is a huge part of what makes Falco who he is, and they are endlessly entertaining. Finally, although he is rather cunning, and certainly intelligent, Falco makes progress mostly by blind luck and accident. He is regularly plagued by bad timing and terrible luck, and we can always assume that if something can go wrong then it undoubtedly will. Unsurprisingly, Falco’s running commentary is delivered with a world-weary tone that is both funny and endearing at the same time, making the titles in this series very easy and enjoyable to read. 

Falco does not claim to be a hero, and yet he shows great courage and the type of persistence that would impress even the most determined terrier. He is also doggedly determined to fulfill his role as the head of his rather large, and almost unanimously ungrateful, family. We are as likely to find him babysitting his niece Marcia as mooching about on business. He is a man who has been dealt a rather dubious hand of cards by life and yet he doggedly attempts to do the best that he can. All of this, along with his witty banter, makes him a wonderful character to read.

Of course, no PI is complete without his femme fatale. Although she does not really fulfill this role in its entirety, Helena Justina is also an extraordinarily entertaining character. I do not want to spoil the events of this title, but she appears in a rather unexpected role in the later books of the series. Here we see their initial impressions of one another and their developing relationship, which is both touching and very realistic. She is just as snarky as Falco, and is more than capable of beating him in a round of banter. She is very intelligent and determined, which creates a massive headache for her long-suffering father. Headstrong and opinionated, she does what she wants, when she wants, but somehow always does it with marvelous style. As the daughter of a senator, she is totally out of Falco’s league: something of which he is painfully aware.

Of the supporting cast, perhaps the most entertaining in this title is Falco’s Mother. She is almost always disappointed by his behavior and life choices, and spends a great deal of time cleaning up after his messes. However, she cares deeply for her family and her son, even though she does tend to show this love through criticism and knowing sarcasm. This is a mother-son relationship that shows a great deal of affection without any cloying hugging and endless “I love you” sentiments. As with the Falco-Helena relationship, this feels very real and makes any moments of emotional display even more poignant.

The same could be said of Falco’s relationship with Petronius. These are two men who have shared a lot of hardships together in the army. They know each other so well that they often do not need to actually speak. There are several moments in the book when Petronius simply allows Falco the time that he needs to gather himself: no speech can truly reflect the depth of understanding that is communicated by just standing beside someone who is suffering. But Petronius is given a nicely rounded character of his own, even if he does seem to fit into a certain type. He is big and tough in his work, but a total pussycat at home with his three little girls.

Of course, a good cast does not guarantee a good read. The plot clips along at a good pace with plenty of surprising turns and red herrings thrown in along the way. However, there is little revealed to be significant at the end that is not mentioned earlier in the book. Most of the evidence is there, if you look for it, although it may not carry much significance until it is pointed out. I have to say that I prefer this type of mystery to those that are impossible to guess until the vital pieces of obscure evidence are revealed in the great dénouement when the murderer is exposed. It is not that I guessed who did what in this title when I first read it, but I can see all the evidence now when I reread it, which me feel as if I could have solved it if I had been paying slightly more attention. I like to feel as if it is possible, assuming that you are not as hopeless as me at guessing these things.

As a person who has spent a great deal of time studying the Ancient Roman period, I have no quibbles with the way in which Ms Davis builds her world. The atmosphere seems suitably grungy: something that the HBO series Rome captured equally well. I have yet to detect an error in her world building, even though I am famous for my nit picking when reading books, so I do not have to worry about being thrown out of her world by a glaring error. It is so nice to know that I can relax into her titles without feeling compelled to keep running to my textbooks because I do not trust what she says. I am sure that some people are a little surprised by some of the details that she includes, such as Falco’s appalling apartment, but I appreciate her attention to historical research.

I highly recommend this title to anyone who likes a good mystery novel that comes with a healthy dose of realism and cynical wit. The characterizations are realistic and excellently entertaining, with well-drawn relationships and delightfully dysfunctional personas. The setting is well researched and accurately portrayed, with no attempt to over-glamorize the era or its people.

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