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.