10 November, 2009

The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis. Book review

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.


Marg said...

I am very slowly working my way through this series, and enjoying it immensely. I love Falco's jaded gumshoe detective persona and the humour. Must read another one soon!

Kathryn Warner said...

Great review! I'm a huge fan of the Falco series too.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Your review makes me want to read the early Falco novels again. I especially enjoyed the first four or five. Have you read "The Course of Honour", about Vespasian and his (ex?)-slave mistress Caenis? Beautifully done. Her only other on-Falco novel is the very recent "Rebels and Traitors" set in the English Civil War, her other favourite period. I'm looking forward to that.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Hm, I should check that one out; it think. I'm not into mystery as genre, but this sounds fun.

Btw, have you tried David Wishart's Roman sleuth novels? He's got a nice humorous tone, too.

Carla said...

Marg - I haven't read all the Falco books yet - aren't there something like 20 in the series by now? - but the ones I have read I've enjoyed immensely. They seem a bit more varied than some of the other long-running historical mystery series, perhaps because of the humour. Great fun.

Alianore - thanks, and so am I.

Sarah - No, I haven't yet got around to The Course of Honour, though I intend to. Antonia (?) Caenis had a cameo role in one of the Falco novels I read (can't remember which one), and I'd like to read more about her and her relationship with Vespasian. I've read about half a dozen Falco mysteries, but I have a habit of reading series out of order so they aren't the first half-dozen.

Gabriele - Yes, the Falco novels are great fun, even if you aren't especially into mysteries as such. If you haven't tried them yet, do give one a go - they should be very easily available because they're so popular. Your library with the English-language fiction department probably has some. If you do, let me know what you think! Thanks for the recommendation of David Wishart.

Annis said...

'Silver Pigs" is still my favourite Falco, though "Saturnalia" comes a close second. I recently read the latest one, "Alexandria", and have to confess to a sense of disappointment- it just didn't seem to have the usual Falco humour and pizzazz. Maybe Lindsey Davis was a bit ambivalent about turning out another Falco when her focus was on "Rebels and Traitors". I think I'll go with Ruth Downie's delightful "Medicus" books at the moment.

"Rebels and Traitors" is sitting on my bookshelf right now, but I quail whenever I look at it - it's such a doorstopper :( Must be getting old when the sight of an epic novel fills me with dismay rather than gleeful anticipation!

Carla said...

Annis - I don't think I've read Saturnalia, so I'll look out for it now. I got very behind with Falco so I haven't read the most recent books. Possibly there is only so much that anyone can do with a single setting and set of characters, and after 20 or so novels (or whatever the number is) the series may be starting to run out of steam. I find the Brother Cadfael novels tend to get a bit same-y as well, so perhaps it is a feature of long-running series. , What do you think?
As to the reaction to a big thick novel, for me that depends on why it's big. If it's hundreds of pages long because there's a lot going on in it and the story needs that many words, I'm thrilled; if it's long because it's full of padding, not so much.

Annis said...

Yes, I think that it is probably difficult to maintain freshness after 20 or so books in a series, though "Saturnalia" is a relatively recent one and very funny indeed. Also, as Falco becomes a more serious paterfamilias maybe it's harder for him to engage in the devil-may-care activities which make the stories fun :)

Part of my ambivalence about "Rebels and Traitors" is due to less than enthusiastic reports about it, which indicate that it's worthy rather than gripping. Sarah Johnson of the Historical Novels Society had this to say on the Historical Fiction forum: "It's an odd mixture of mostly compelling fictional story and lengthy infodumps that could have come straight from a nonfiction history textbook. The two aren't interwoven particularly well, and it made for an uneven read."
Sarah also provided a link to this interesting review by Hilary Mantel

Sarah Johnson said...

Thanks for the excellent review, Carla. It's been ages since I've read anything from this series (I started in the middle) and really ought to pick it up again. I don't recall which ones I've read - my memory must be going. I've never read Course of Honour either and am glad to see Sarah C's recommendation of it.

I'll be very interested to compare notes on Rebels & Traitors with whoever else decides to read it!

Carla said...

Annis - Yes, I daresay being a responsible husband and father would cramp, or at least alter, Falco's style :-) I saw Sarah's review of Rebels and Traitors, and thought 'hmmmmm'. I'm not a great fan of info dumps, whether it be a lengthy description of 15th-century clothes in HF or ten pages of techno-babble in a thriller. There again, that catty comment at the end of Hilary Mantel's review made me more inclined to give Rebels and Traitors a go!

Sarah - I can remember some of the titles I've read but not all of them, so it's not just you. Odd that the style should be so different between Falco and Rebels and Traitors. Perhaps she was deliberately aiming for a complete contrast? I do intend to read both Course of Honour and Rebels and Traitors at some point.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I second Annis about Ruth Downie's Medicus detective series (R S Downie's Ruso series with different titles in the UK). Highly recommended if you like Falco, but not a rip-off because, although there are similarities. the characters and settings have their own freshness. Ruso is a Roman Army surgeon stationed in Britain, a reluctant gumshoe, and his love interest is a native girl he rescued in the first novel.

I posted a blog about the first two Ruso novels and an interview with the author which originally appeared in The Historical Novels Review.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Great review Carla and I agree about the humour - one of the most appealing details of Lindsey Davis' books for me. I read The Silver Pigs just after it was published and before the author became a star, so I am just a little smug - and so pleased that she went on to write so many more.
I've bought the dh a Ruth Downie for Christmas and I'm sure he'll love it!

Annis said...

Carla, having recently read Robert Harris' "Lustrum", it struck me after reading that review that Hilary Mantel might have a touch of the Cicero syndrome- the inability to resist making an unnecessary smart-alec cutting remark followed by puzzlement that your dazzling wit has annoyed those it's aimed at rather than delighting them as much as it did you :)

One reason why I enjoyed Sarah J's comment (hope you didn't mind me quoting you, Sarah) was that I thought it very fair and reasonable. I'm always conscious of the fact that it's much easier to be a critic than an author, and struggle a bit myself with saying what didn't appeal to me in a novel while feeling bad about maybe hurting the author's feelings!

Carla said...

Sarah - Yes, Ruth Downie is already high on my list, in part because of your earlier post!

Elizabeth - Shh, you'll spoil the surprise - though luckily it's unlikely that your dh reads this blog :-) I can't remember when I came across The Silver Pigs, but not as early as you. Well spotted!

Annis - Someone said something very similar about Dorothy Parker, too. I doubt that she had much in common with Cicero (!), but maybe that was one :-)
I also thought Sarah J's assessment was fair and reasonable. When I get round to reading the book I'll find out if I agree with it, which is a slightly different thing. Sometimes info-dumps can be skimmed, sometimes I don't mind them if the rest of the story is compelling enough. E.g., entire chapters in 'Lord of the Rings' could probably count as info-dumps, but they don't seem to spoil my enjoyment. Sometimes a change of pace is a good thing; if characters spend the entire book in dire perils and hairsbreadth escapes it can get nearly as tedious as characters who spend the entire book drinking tea in meaningful ways.

Sarah Johnson said...

No problem with quoting me, Annis, and I'm glad you both thought my comments were fair! For those who are very knowledgeable about (or intensely interested in) the period, I can see how the longer 'infodump' sections could prove fascinating. Also, many scenes with Charles I and his family were dramatized rather than simply recounted, and I read those with great interest even though they broke away from the main characters' stories. Apart from that, there is a good balance of action-adventure vs. more domestic scenes of day-to-day life.

As for Mantel's final remark - it is catty, but at the same time it's true that the authorial tone isn't one that makes you sit up and take notice. It's the story that stands out, rather than any particular words or phrasings.

The style in R&T is noticeably different from the Falco books. Now I'm even more curious to read Course of Honour, as it sounds different from both of these.

Annis said...

"Course of Honour" is well worth a read, Sarah. As Sarah C says, it's beautifully done and quite moving.

Carla, I'm now pondering the ways in which tea can be drunk meaningfully :)

Carla said...

Sarah - it's interesting that the style should be so different between Rebels and Traitors and the Falco books. The discussion is starting to remind me of the contrast between Dorothy Dunnett's Dolly mysteries and the Lymond/Niccolo chronicles, which were completely different. Is it anything like that? Although with Dorothy Dunnett you get both style and story, in both groups of novels. I like both, and the books that make it to my all-time favourites list usually have both in some measure.

Annis - I was being flippant :-)

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla - I haven't read the Dolly mysteries so can't really say, but R&T is much more serious in tone, and the elements of humor, while there, are more subtle than in the Falco books. If that helps answer the question at all :)

Carla said...

Sarah - thanks, that's helpful.

Constance Brewer said...

Alas, our public library seems to buy every other Falco book and I don't recall this one. Now I'll have to hunt it down thanks to some of those excerpt lines. *g*

Carla said...

Constance - all the Falcos I've read (which is not all of them) have the same sort of humour, so if you can't find a particular book, try another and there's practically certain to be something equally funny in it. If I remember rightly, Two For The Lions has some memorable graffiti :-)

Annis said...

Carla, long live flippancy, I say! Mind you, I'm blessed (or is that cursed?) with an anarchic sense of humour myself :)