I read some series like River Song travels with the Doctor: out of order. I’ve dipped and dallied with various books in the Falco series, but most recently I read Venus in Copper before going back to the source, Falco #1: The Silver Pigs. Here we meet Lindsey Davis’ private eye: Marcus Didius Falco, an informer in the first-century Roman empire. Falco is constantly on the hunt for new clients and new income, lest his greedy landlord send some gladiators around to bust his kneecaps (and other, more precious body parts). In this case, Falco gets mixed up in the murder of a senator’s niece and finds himself travelling to Britain, where he meets the same senator’s daughter as he races to uncover a silver theft conspiracy that could topple the emperor.
As I pointed out in my review of Venus in Copper, this series has two notable strengths. Firstly, Falco is a great protagonist. Secondly, Davis is great at reifying ancient Rome, describing it in all its glory. She does this in Falco’s voice, making him sound like the native of the city that he is, as he nonchalantly tosses out names and routes from one part of the city to the other. These two strengths more than make up for weaknesses in the plot or mystery, though I think I preferred this mystery over that of Venus’.
Falco embodies a lot of the typical private investigator traits, complete with the run-down office/apartment that is somewhat behind on the rent. He gleefully spars verbally with everyone from his mother to potential clients to emperor’s sons, only to become tongue-tied when he meets the one woman he can’t just seduce and then cast away. In this way, Davis also subverts some of the tropes of the private investigator. She establishes Helena Justina as a permanent love interest for Falco. In The Silver Pigs, we get to see their first meeting and the way their relationship begins from mutual animosity towards something approaching amity, and then finally to love. Falco and Helena are a good match for each other: stubborn, clever, and passionate; I wish them well.
The other strength of this series lies in Davis’ knowledge of Rome, particularly Roman geography. I don’t spend too much time with the maps at the beginning of historical fiction books. If I need to, I might refer back to them while I read. I like it when I don’t even have to do that. Davis smoothly describes how Falco might be running from one end of Rome to the other, and her easy patter means I don’t have to worry about mapping out the route. Falco should sound like he knows what he’s doing, and Davis makes sure he sounds that way. She creates a consistent voice for him as narrator, expertly balancing between exposition that her modern readers need to know and inferences about would be apparent to someone living in ancient Rome.
So many books set in this time period focus on the dynastic struggles. Many take a very wide view of history, with their stories set across decades and dynasties. It is refreshing, then, to have a book like The Silver Pigs. It takes place over the course of about a year, as Falco travels from Rome to Britain and back, with a stint in the lead/silver mines for a few months. In the backdrop of the book, Vespasian is securing his grasp on the throne by celebrating his and his son’s Triumph over Jerusalem. However, this is never more than a side element; the main story is undoubtedly the mystery that Falco decides he must solve.
I admit that Davis’ penchant for describing the political ramifications of her villains’ machinations is not at the same level as her geography. She does her best to explain how bribing the Praetorian Guard could lead to Vespasian’s downfall; however, this never demonstrates much suspense. The most realistic and compelling part of the mystery is Falco’s drive to avenge the death of Sofia. It’s easy to believe in that, regardless of the time period one might be from. So, while this isn’t one of the book’s strengths, there are plenty of books about ancient Rome that do have cutting political philosophy.
The mystery itself burgeons with suspects and villains, though we don’t actually meet many of them, and some of the ones we do meet turn up dead or missing. What drives Falco is the constant sense of danger as the ground shifts beneath his feet. I don’t have a lot of experience with pulp detective fiction, but I’m given to understand that often the protagonist can’t even trust the people he works for—they can have shady agendas as well. This is certainly the case here, where Falco manages to pick up not one but three employers: Helena Justina’s father, Helena herself, and the Emperor (in the form of his son, Titus). Watching Falco deal with the people who are supposed to be helping him is probably as much, if not more, fun as watching him deal with the people who want to hurt him.
The Silver Pigs is a promising start to the Falco series. I think it would probably give a first-time reader a good indication of whether they can expect to like the rest of the books. I certainly intend to continue dipping into this series at a leisurely pace. These books are excellent works of historical fiction when it comes to setting and character. Davis set out to write mystery in ancient Rome … and she has certainly succeeded.