Davis, Lindsey: (01) Silver Pigs

I checked Lindsey Davis’s Silver Pigs out of the library based on LiveJournal recommendations. Without that high praise, I might not have stuck with it, but I did and ended up enjoying it enough to request the next volumes from another library branch (the early ones are currently out of print, but will be coming back soon).

The prefatory Dramatis Personae list started promisingly:

Vespasian Augustus: A jovial old cove who has jumped up from nowhere and made himself Emperor of Rome.

But in the novel proper, it wasn’t two full paragraphs before I was knocked right out of the book:

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 griddle-plate.

I read that and said, “Wait—it’s A.D. 70, did they have pancakes then? Or griddle-plates, for that matter?” Possibly they did and this is the “Tiffany problem” [*], but all the same, my chain of association goes something like “pancakes — maple syrup — Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

[*] Coined by Jo Walton. Tiffany is a genuine medieval name, and yet no reader of a historical novel would put up with it.

Pancakes aside, it took me a while to feel that the style and content worked together. The first-person narrator is very much your archetypal private eye, all mocking cynical patter shielding wounded chivalry. I think of that as a very modern idea, and so I had some trouble suspending my disbelief about such a narrator living in ancient Rome.

Eventually the characters caught me, though, and I fell through the page. Marcus Didius Falco is our narrator, a low-level private informer (apparently a historical position, though probably less P.I.-like than Davis portrays). A beautiful young woman in distress runs into him one day; he investigates a bit, finds a plot against the new Emperor involving stolen Imperial silver (hence the title), backs off, but of course is drawn back in against his will.

I was trying to figure out if I liked this, not whodunnit, so I can’t really say how difficult the mystery is to a new reader. In retrospect, it seems both fairly well-constructed and fairly obvious. There’s one bit towards the end that struck me as superfluous even at the time, but otherwise I don’t have many quibbles with the plot. The real pleasure is in the people: Falco, the partner he finds, and the various strong secondary characters. I like the way the characters have established relationships, histories that matter, and problems that aren’t easily solved. And the combination of a more-idealistic-than-cynical P.I. and tough, sensible, kind women is generally a good one.

(I do enjoy the historical setting, but it’s not the principal attraction because I don’t know how far I can trust it. I was telling Chad about the book, and he said he’d heard it mentioned on some con panel or other; the panelist said that there are three detective series set in ancient Rome, and they sell in inverse relation to their historical accuracy. He recalled Davis as being on the high-selling end of that relationship. Me, I’m just surprised that there’s as many as three series with this premise.)

I’m quite looking forward to seeing how the characters develop over the next volumes.

2 Comments

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  1. If I wasn’t one of the people who was recommending Falco to you, it was only a matter of time, so I’m glad you ended up enjoying him!
    I think the thing you had problems with (the historical setting filtered through a Chandleresque narrative) is not a mistake but a feature: it’s deliberate, and if you don’t enjoy it, then Lindsey Davis is not for you…
    To take your specific example, cooking bread / cakes on a griddle must be pretty ancient – I’d guess that it’s legitimate, and that it’s the terminology that’s disconcerting.
    I have heard Lindsey Davis speak, and she maintains that the books are historically accurate – her website suggests that she inserts one anachronism per book, so you can have fun looking for it.
    Anyway, I hope you contune to enjoy the series: I think it gets tired eventually, but you’ve a way to go before you reach that point!
    [admin note: originally posted Apr 2, 2006 5:41 AM; reposted after server crash]

  2. I also enjoyed those Marcus Didius Falco books that I read, before running out of momentum. I seem to recall that the first one was better, so you have something to look forward to.
    I’ve also read several books in at least one of the other “Roman PI” series: Stephen Saylor’s “Gordianus the Finder” books. From what I know of your preferences, you might very well enjoy those more — more subtle characterizations, more ambiguity, more authentic (or at least authentic-feeling) historical detail. I’m not sure they’re better-crafted mysteries, though. I believe Roman Blood is the first one. The reviewer on MysteryGuide.com had this to say about it (to begin with):
    “Gordianus the Finder is a Roman private eye circa 80 BC, who makes a living gathering evidence for the lengthy court cases so beloved of his era. One hot day, he is called to aid a neophyte advocate named Cicero, who is defending a man charged with that most serious of ancient crimes, parricide. The accused will say little in his own defence and hired killers dog the footsteps of all potential witnesses to the crime. The further Gordianus digs into this complex case, the more layers of “truth” are uncovered — and the more danger threatens his own household.
    The plot is well-planned and reasonably fair to those who are familiar with the milieu. The author is plainly fascinated with the era and has done a lot of homework; but this book is uneasily balanced between the genres of historical fiction and crime fiction. I hesitate to mention genre boundaries because in general I don’t believe in them; but in this case the reader should be aware that the book is extremely slow-paced for a mystery, and rather clumsy for a historical novel. ”
    [admin note: originally posted Apr 2, 2006 5:08 PM; reposted after server crash]

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