Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer and the protagonist of Lindsey Davis’s mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Emperor Vespasian has come into power and good imperial agents are required to hide royal crimes, curb corruption and sniff out political scandals. I first came across Falco and his exploits in ‘The Silver Pigs‘ where he accidentally falls upon an imperial minting fraud. The investigation kick starts with the death of a Senator’s young and impressionable niece . The story is not a murder mystery but more of a government backed investigation. Falco’s inquiry takes him into the desperate neighborhoods of Ancient Rome and across the channel to the edges of Roman empire in cold and dry Britannia. Nefarious plots to overthrow the Emperor are discovered and the investigation gets more bloody. Along the way we are introduced to a cast of characters that will continue to be central to Falco’s investigative efforts. There is Petronius Longus, an employee of Roman police force who is often the reluctant inside source for information for Falco. Helena Justina is the sharp and witty daughter of the Senator who predictably forms Falco’s love interest. She also brings some diversity into a vastly male cast of characters. Falco’s garrulous family makes several excursions only to add to the length of book and its feeble attempts at humor.
While there is a lot of fodder for a great novel ‘The Silver Pigs’ fails to deliver. The flaws are plenty, the biggest being the first person narrative. I believe Davis was inspired by the film noir detectives who presented their sordid lives to the viewers in their ironical, dry style. Falco tries but is never convincing. He tries too hard to push his intelligence, charm and wit down our throats. The first rule of writing is to show and not tell. Unfortunately with Falco, the story appears to be a really long monologue. All your impressions of people and places are made through his lens of humor and satire none of it which is funny. This becomes painful in fight sequences where Falco explains every motion of his body as he punches around thugs.
The other flaw is the meandering plot. It digresses so often that you read chapters and chapters without making any headway in the solving of the mystery. Fast paced these novels are not. Davis has clearly put in a lot of hours researching the minutiae of life in Rome. The writing is eager in describing every little detail of Roman architecture, culture and life. Only in some cases does it organically fit in with the story while in most cases it feels text bookish. One of my favorite descriptions of Rome are when Falco and his client, Helena, are on the run and escape into the by lanes of Rome at night.
The third flaw which I find the hardest to overcome is the writing itself. I know there is problem with the quality when I mentally start scratching off words and rewriting sentences as I read along. Dialogues are often accompanied with tone descriptions of ‘gasped’, half-grinned’, ‘said satirically’, ‘snapped’, ‘snapped back’ that it gets exhausting after a while to keep up with the emotions with each statement. It’s hard to point but there is something off about the writing in general. It’s too elaborate yet casual as if Davis is not able to find the right form representing the period. It reminded me of Amish Triphati’s ‘Shiva Trilogy’ and his struggle to keep the language relevant to the period of the novels set in ancient India .
I don’t know why but I still went ahead and bought a couple of books in the series from a bookstore near my house just to see if there was any progression in characters or writing. ‘Scandal Takes a Holiday‘ is a much later novel and the most useful thing I learnt from it was about piracy during Ancient Rome. More overly complicated and meandering plots and more inane writing.’Alexandria‘ is the only one that I enjoyed. It is actually a more traditional closed door murder mystery with a definite list of suspects and motives. The writing is more taut. The location is of course Alexandria, beautifully described but not overtly so. I would still make it 100 pages shorter!
I have only read only 3 of the dozen in the series and feel equipped to pronounce some sort of judgement. It may definitely cater to a certain type of reader and maybe even certain reading mood, but in a market inundated with murder mystery novels I think I am done with my experimentation with Falco and most definitely will not be reading another one.