When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.
Marcus Didius Falco, opening lines of The Silver Pigs
For all the modern cultural power of spaceships and superheroes, if you’re looking for proper geekdom, you can’t go wrong looking to crime novel fans. After all, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories were among the first to create what might be thought of as a widespread ‘geek response’ – plenty of people waited for new episodes of a Dickens story to come out, but very few of them analysed the subtext of Little Dorrit, or argued about the likely blood spatter pattern in the death of Nancy. Detective fiction, like science fiction, appeals to the obsessive, the spotters of details, the askers of questions, the makers of lists, and – crucially to their success - the followers of series.
Since Holmes, each generation has had its favourite sleuths – Poirot and Marple (honourable mentions to Tommy and Tuppence and Mr Quinn), Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlowe, Morse, Adam Dalgliesh, Cordelia Gray, Brother Cadfael, Rebus, the list goes on. Since Miss Marple, the detective fiction market has also been one of the more equal areas for heroism in popular culture – while to claim complete equality would be overstating the case, there’s a line to be drawn from Jane Marple through the likes of Stephanie Plum, Agatha Raisin and Precious Ramotswe and full circle to Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson, that shows a wide public acceptance of the idea of men and women being equal in the detecting business.
One of the best detective series of the last thirty years takes the classic Philip Marlowe tradition and gives it a Roman makeover, balancing drama with a strain of sarcastic, if not sardonic humour from the detective-cum-narrator.
Welcome to the world of Roman gumshoe, Marcus Didius Falco.
It’s not difficult to see what makes the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis appealing to so many – they have everything you could want from classic detective novels: the gumshoe; the sidekick; a cast of supporting characters adding social pressures to the detective’s life; some fiendish murders with solid, but widely differing motivations which avoid accusations of formula; an arch-enemy for our beleaguered hero; additional pressure from ‘City Hall’; and of course, a dame too classy to give our detective the time of day, but who somehow falls for him anyway.
In Rome (both the city and increasingly as the series develops, the empire, starting in AD71) during the time of the Emperor Vespasian*, Marcus Didius Falco is a former soldier and current ‘informer’ – the nearest thing Imperial Rome has to a detective. He’s a bluff, sarcastic, worldly, likeable Plebian bachelor when we meet him, Marlowe in sandals, his world full of characters that add layers and texture to his adventures. Like most good Roman boys, he has a Mother, as well as several sisters, most of whom appear to have gone out especially looking for the most useless husbands on the market. His father, now absent, was an auctioneer and occasional philanderer, about whom initially it’s practically forbidden to speak. His brother Festus was a fellow soldier and the family’s golden boy. He’s no longer alive, which tends to make him shinier still, and leaves Falco as the notional ‘head of the family,’ a position no-one entirely thinks he’s qualified for – least of all Falco himself. As Holmes has his Lestrade, so Falco has his pal, Lucius Petronius Longus, another rogue made good, or at least goodish, as the captain of the local vigiles (technically firemen, but often doing the work of a police force). Falco’s arch-enemy, while rarely the leading danger in any investigation, is genuinely dangerous and capable of making a real, potentially terminal nuisance of himself - Anacrites is the chief spy at the imperial palace.
All that’s missing in this gumshoe’s life is the dame.
Enter the dame: Helena Justina Camilla is a senator’s daughter, waaaaay out of Falco’s league, and married to a bad lot in a toga. Like every schlemiel in the Marlowe school of detective work, Falco can’t help but fall for her. Like every dame in the Marlowe tradition, Helena Justina’s cool and classy, but still finds herself drawn to the spirit of the man who wants to know the truth.
Over the course of twenty novels, Helena becomes not only Falco’s Watson (it’s arguable that he’s actually her Watson), but his wife, and the mother of his children, adding complications and joy to his life as he becomes not only the father of daughters (biological and adopted), but gains an entrance point to senatorial, and even on the odd scary occasion, imperial society, as he takes on the requirement of real estate, the peculiarities of civic duty and religion, and even (whisper this quietly) occasionally a legitimate job for the palace.
Through Falco’s life and career, Davis takes us on a tour of Roman living in the first century AD, from imperial politics and the exports of Britain in The Silver Pigs, through the Roman legal system in The Accusers, to the insanities of the city’s banking (and poetry) businesses in Ode To A Banker, through the intricacies of having the Roman builders in, in A Body In The Bath House, to the circuses and gladiator schools of the empire in Two For The Lions, to the civil engineering genius of the Roman water system in Three Hands In The Fountain, and much more besides. Along the way you’ll find an excellent recipe for an absolute shedload of turbot, the 100% genuine (cough, cough) first performance of The Spook That Spoke (or Hamlet, as you might know it), Roman contraception tips (two words: olive oil), and advice on everything from how to avoid being poisoned at dinner to social climbing in a world where someone’s not only greased the rungs but put a scorpion pit at the bottom.
What you’ll also get is a signature writing style that tinges the Falco adventures with drama where necessary, and humour wherever possible, as well as some cracking murder mysteries that’ll keep you turning pages as you devour book after book.
Nobody was poisoned at the dinner for the Society of Olive Oil Producers of Baetica – though in retrospect, that was quite a surprise.
Marcus Didius Falco, opening lines of A Dying Light In Corduba
For those left slavering for more after twenty novels (and they’re damn good novels, so you might be), Davis even delivers an additional treat – taking events forward some years from the end of what is that last Falco novel to date, Nemesis, Falco’s adopted daughter, former British slave girl Flavia Albia takes up his profession, giving us effectively the Falco Novels – The Next Generation, and showing a slightly later Rome from a different, female and less intrinsically sarcastic point of view (Flavia Albia is currently up to book four, and neither showing any inclination nor having any reason to stop any time soon).
While delivering their primary fix – great detective novels and murder mysteries in a Marlowe tradition – the Falco novels dip you deeply into the different elements of Roman life and culture they explore, without ever, ever, ever allowing themselves the sin of ‘worthiness’ – the language is our language, the characters identifiably real to us while they deal with specifically Roman problems. You’ll come away from the Falco novels feeling like you understand a lot more about Roman life than you did beforehand, but it’s all absorbed inconspicuously, while you laugh, cry and thrill at Falco’s family life and puzzle out the mysteries from which he makes his living.
There are plenty of audiobook readings of the Falco novels, and while many of them are fine, if you’ll take a tip from a veteran fan, you’ll read the novels first. Give Falco and his friends the voices you think they have – it’s the best way to make the Rome of Vespasian, and the Rome of Marcus Didius Falco (which is not always the same place), come alive.
Make your life much, much better than it has been up to now – grab your sandals and a flask of decent Falernian, and start reading the Falco novels today.
*Rapid history lesson: Julius Caesar – stabbed. War. Octavian finally wins sole power, becomes Emperor, eventually renamed Augustus. Sulky son-in-law Tiberius, bit of a perve, rules mostly from outside the city. Caligula – blood, orgies, god-fantasies, assassinated. Claudius – possibly bit of an idiot, trusted freedmen got things done, hailed as a god, so power to the people. Nero: Caligula II, the Revenge – This Time It’s Musical. City burns to ground. Assassinated – well, you would, wouldn’t you? Year of chaos and bloodshed, known as the ‘year of the four emperors.’ Last of the four: Vespasian, capable general with a couple of sons to succeed him. City exhausted, Vespasian begins to rebuild Rome as both an idea and a reality.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk