Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2000. ISBN: 0099414732, 315 pages.
Set in Rome and Britain in 70 AD, immediately after the political turmoil of the Year of Four Emperors, this historical mystery launched the immensely (and deservedly) popular Falco series. Emperor Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian are secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.
Hard-bitten and not very successful private informer Marcus Didius Falco is short of funds, as ever. When he has the opportunity to rescue a pretty aristocratic girl from the thugs who are chasing her through the Forum, he naturally hopes for a reward from her wealthy family. Instead, he finds himself commissioned to investigate a murky financial scam, which soon turns out to have even murkier political overtones. When the trail turns murderous, Falco finds himself travelling to the godforsaken wilds of Britain, where he encounters two perils - working as a slave in the silver mines, and the beautiful, classy senator’s daughter Helena Justina.
I’ve read The Silver Pigs many times since it first appeared, and listened to the BBC radio adaptation starring Anton Lesser at least twice, and it’s just as fresh on an umpteenth encounter as on the first. The plot races along even faster than Helena Justina’s carriage driving, with plenty of unlikely twists and turns. I always lose track of who is double-crossing who among all the nefarious dealings – involving stolen silver, smuggling, attempts to bribe the Praetorian Guard, and a conspiracy against the Emperor – but for me that never matters. I read The Silver Pigs not for the whodunnit (although the murder is ingeniously resolved), but for the fun and energy of Falco’s world, the strong cast of characters and the sharpness of the writing.
Rome in The Silver Pigs is a city teeming with people from all walks of life, all of them busy making a living, raising their families, trying to get rich quick, arguing, gossiping, fighting, joking and trying to put one over on each other. Its richness and vitality remind me in some ways of Dickens’ London, or Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. Never mind the Great Men and the marble monuments, Falco’s Rome is a city of jerry-built apartment buildings, dodgy fast-food joints, street markets, brothels, unsavoury taverns, labourers, craftsmen, debt collectors and muggers. There is a wealth of historical detail, but it’s there to create a world and never simply slathered on for exotic background.
Falco is a marvellous character, streetwise gumshoe and hopeless romantic by turns. An ex-legionary who served in Britain during the trauma of the Boudican revolt, he is as tough as an old Army boot and a casual womaniser (or he would like you to believe he is – I’m never sure how many of the Tripolitanian acrobat girls are wishful thinking), but his little niece shows him up to be a big softy at heart and he writes sentimental love poetry that nobody reads. His cynical, witty narrative, in a slangy style reminiscent of Marlowe, is nothing less than a delight. Helena Justina, cool, intelligent and self-possessed, makes a worthy match for him as their relationship develops (in this and subsequent books).
The secondary characters are no less colourful. Falco’s gimcrack apartment building is owned by a retired gladiator called Smaractus who employs a team of heavies to collect unpaid rent, and the ground floor is occupied by a laundry run by the kindly but no less formidable Lenia, who has her eye on marrying Smaractus at a profit. Falco’s old friend and ex-Army colleague Petronius is a world-weary watchman, ever ready to drown his sorrows in a flagon of cheap wine, usually only to find that they can swim. Falco’s domineering mother and tribe of sisters have very little truck with the idea that Falco is supposed to be the head of the family. Emperor Vespasian, the tough provincial army general who came from nowhere and made himself Emperor, has a splendid cameo role (in the radio adaptation Michael Tudor Barnes plays him as a bluff Yorkshireman, and now it’s his voice I always hear for Vespasian when reading the books).
But the great strength of the Falco novels, for me, is the racy, humorous writing style. Some examples:
- A Praetorian guard officer on investigating smugglers: “…. tracking the weevils back to their biscuit….”
- On Britain: “If you simply cannot avoid it, you will find the province of Britain out beyond civilisation in the realms of the North Wind. If your mapskin has grown ragged at the edges you will have lost it, in which case so much the better is all I can say.”
- On Bath: “Hot springs gushed out of the rock at a shrine where puzzled Celts still came to dedicate coinage to Sul, gazing tolerantly at the brisk new plaque which announced that Roman Minerva had assumed management. […] I could not believe that anything could ever be made of this place.”
- On a shady dealer in metals: “…..a loud British wideboy, all twisty electrum necklets and narrow, pointed shoes …..”.
- On a brawl in a brothel: “The table toppled over, pulling down a curtain to reveal some citizen’s white backside rising like the Moon Goddess as he did his anxious duty by a maiden of the house; the poor rabbit froze in mid-thrust, then went into eclipse.”
- On Helena Justina, when Falco first meets her as an enemy: “…burnt caramel eyes in a bitter almond face….”, and later, when he realises she is far from an enemy, “….warm caramel eyes in a creamy almond face….”
Warm, humane, funny and unsentimental, The Silver Pigs is lighthearted but not lightweight, ranging from the tragic to the absurd with a cast of colourful characters and a vivid recreation of ancient Rome in all its grubby glory.