Lindsey Davis

Marcus Didius Falco - Private Informer, Imperial Rome (AD70s)

"The Accusers"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer SEP 16, 2004)

Marcus Didius Falco and company have finally returned to Rome after their adventures in Londinium. (See the last two books, A Body in the Bathhouse and The Jupiter Myth...) Falco needs to re-establish his business as an informer, and so he takes small cases, such as one where he basically acts as a messenger in a court case, fetching a document and delivering a deposition. He was never sure what importance he played in the case, but Senator Rubirius Metellus was convicted on the charges of abuse of office, and a huge financial settlement was laid upon him. Two weeks later Mettellus took the honorable way out, killing himself so that the fortunes stayed with the family. The prosecuting lawyer, Silius Italicus, is very disappointed by this, because much of the money was to go in his own coffers. He wants Falco to prove that Metellus didn’t commit suicide, and the more Falco looks into it, the less likely it seems that he actually did. So who killed him? And why? Was it the estranged daughter? The calm, cool wife? The son? The son’s ex-wife, who seems to be too close to her first husband?

This book gives us a whole new take on lawyers and litigation. Today, the idea that the lawyer profits from the winnings isn’t new (“No fees unless we get money for you!” is a universal line from law firm advertising), but in ancient Rome litigation is a thriving business. One where, if you lose the law suit, you could end up in complete financial ruins because accusing the wrong person, means that the accuser's lawyer could ask for a financial settlement to make up for the slander on their good name. But, if they win, the lawyers make much more money on the case than the people who hired them.

Falco finds himself switching sides a bit on this one, as first he works with the prosecutors who accuse one of the daughters...the solution to that trial is clever and shocking and proves that she wasn’t the one. Then the mother promises to swear out a deposition on the son...and Falco ends up taking the case, offering to go into court and defend Birdy, a hapless, flighty man who shows disconcerting flashes of stubbornness. The thing is, there’s a huge secret, but no one in the family is willing to spill the beans. Falco finds himself in some serious trouble, for how can he defend Birdy if he doesn’t know the facts?

As usual, Davis gives us fascinating flashes of Roman life. The idea of honorable suicide, where the family actually eats a last supper with the about to be dead then waits while they poison themselves is quite a surprise. I’d understood the concept of it, but rather thought it was done more on the sly than that. And, of course, the details of the legal system are fascinating, and a little scary, because they make it a situation where anything less than a win can be devastating. And, even more interesting, is that it’s just as corrupt as the one we have in place today. Actually more so, which is scary because it means ours has room to grow.

Filled with the Falco’s wry and fabulous narration, Davis’s latest installment shows that, despite my admission in the last review, that I‘d miss the London setting, I'm glad he's back in Rome; there’s no place like home.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 29 reviews

 

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"The Jupiter Myth"

(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer FEB 22, 2004)

When last we saw wise cracking Roman gumshoe Marcus Didius Falco, he'd just solved the mystery of the Body in the Bathhouse. Now he has to solve the murder of the body in the well. He and his family are staying with his uncle-in-law, the procurator of finance, which is why, when a centurion decides to send for a higher power to take a look at what has happened, Falco gets brought along. Read excerptIt's the fact that he knows who the victim is that gets him in trouble. Readers may remember Verovulcus from the last book...and therefore remember that Verovulcus is King Togidubnus's oldest friend. The King is also one of the best allies Rome has in what can best be described as a delicate political balance, so it's up to Falco to discover who killed Verovulcus and why before the situation gets out of hand. What he soon discovers is that various establishments in the area...The Golden Shower, The Swan, Europa...all have more in common than names relating to Jupiter and his various amorous adventures. They are all establishments paying protection. He, his best friend Petronius and even his long-suffering wife Helena go undercover to find out just how far this plague has spread...and what it has to do with Verovulcus.

What I really enjoyed about this book is the different perspective it gave me on London. A mind-boggling amount of the mysteries I read take place in England/London, and so to read a story taking place in Londinium was rather fun. We get to see the setting in a new light, way before the buildings and places we have come to regard as essential for a London setting existed. It's almost like another land entirely, and one where Davis doesn't flinch from using to its greatest potential, from little ironies (one of the characters has the not so thrilling distinction of being one of the first bodies to be disposed of in the Thamesis) to how Falco's reminiscences of the horrors that he witnessed during the Icenian revolt color the setting. We also are treated to comparisons and contrasts of it with Rome, which works well because our common perception of Rome is probably much clearer than that of Londinium AD 75. In this, the map in front is helpful, in that it doesn't just mark out the things Falco would have seen, such as the Temporary Bridge, but also marks where the Tower of London and the other bridges will someday be, giving us an idea of where the Roman buildings such as the forum are in relationship to the things we know.

The historical aspects are obviously well researched. Not only does it make the setting special, but brings some other interesting aspects into play. We meet female gladiators and get a glimpse into their lives, we meet sleazy salesmen trying to convince people to buy jet jewelry and British born dogs. It gives Davis a chance to give us a colorful palette of characters, from the noble to the ignoble, allowing her plenty of room to make things interesting while creating room for humor. Falco's run in with an honest lawyer and his amazement at finding one made me smile.

What really makes this book special...indeed, the books of this series I've read so far...is that Falco is extremely pleasant to spend time with. His relationships with Helena, his beloved wife and Maia, his sister, are well done, and his interchanges with them are often quite funny. He maintains a combination of hard boiled gumshoe and half hearted respectability that makes him comfortable and interesting to hang around with for the length of the book. And, of course, awkward things happen...such as one of the female Gladiators being an old flame...and Helena's suspicion that Falco might not behaving himself make us wince and feel bad for him.

The mystery of who's running the rackets in Londinium and what it has to do with the murder is nifty, with plenty of twists to keep the readers guessing. I especially thought that the fact that the houses paying up all had names to do with some aspect of the Jupiter myth was an elegant touch.

Falco may be yearning to go home to Rome, but I enjoyed the setting and his reaction to it so much that even if he doesn't miss Londinium, I certainly will.

  • Amazon readers rating:from 23 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Jupiter Myth at MostlyFiction.com

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"A Body in the Bathhouse"

(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer SEP 01, 2002)

Marcus Didius Falco is about to deal with his most pernicious set of villains yet...a group of building contractors. Gloccus and Cotta were given the task of remodeling Falco's father's bathhouse. As the smell in the bathhouse gets worse, and wet plaster or dead animals can no longer be blamed, Pa and Falco break open the floor and find a dead body. This dilemma soon ties in with another, for the Emperor is having his own building problems. He has decided to gift his old friend and ally King Togidubnus of the Britons a beautiful new palace, but the site is plagued by troubles from unexplained expenses to murder. At first Falco doesn't want to go. He's been to Britain before, and is less than thrilled with the idea, even though he's tempted by the thought that he might track down Gloccus and Cotta there. Unfortunately, his beautiful and newly widowed sister Maia has become the object of obsession for one of the deadliest men in the Empire, the Chief Spy Anacrites. So, it's off to the least favorable part of the known world for Falco and his family.

The tone of this book is fabulous. Falco doesn't seem to take anything seriously, except for his love for his wife and family, and his job. As he tells the story with his own wise cracking voice, which spares no one, not even his Caesar, we see the world of Rome, A.D. 75 in a new way. The idea, I suppose, is that people never change. The corrupt politicians, the pocket-lining contractors, the sycophants and hangers on are all stereotypes that we are well familiar with. This doesn't make the book any less funny; in fact it makes it even more so. The incongruity of these stock characters of our own times placed in the setting of Imperial Rome is really amusing, especially since Davis has a sharp sense of humor that takes advantage of every opportunity. Sometimes the humor is quite cynical, which I enjoyed because to me, (although perhaps it's just my mood) cynical humor feels more real.

It also works well with the mystery solving aspects of the book. A slapstick sense of humor would make Falco look foolish. Instead, he looks competent, which he is, and just very realistic about the people around him and life in his times. This take affects the overall sense of time that this book has; the setting is clear and precisely researched, and the sense of place is solid. You feel like you're seeing life in those times, except the tone, the humor, and Falco's personality make it all more immediate. I liked that, because sometimes a really well researched and accurate to the stitches historical novel is too ponderous, the writer sacrifices plot for detail. In this case, you get the whole flavor of Rome, while still enjoying a fun read. Another reason why the humor works so well is Davis's sharp portrayals of her characters. Sometimes she does things that seem like out and out caricatures, like the Architect Pomponius, whose ostentatious dress and pompous manners let the reader know right away that this man is an unreasoning twit. Sometimes her characters are more real, more round, like our main character Falco, who is as charming a character as I've ever read. His common sense and biting wit are a pleasure to read.

This is the 13th Marcus Didius Falco mystery in this series with a 14th one about to be released in the U.K., and although she is not as well known here in the States, she seems to have a steady following around the world. I can see why. I enjoyed Davis's skill at mixing humor, history and a first class mystery in which she creates a rare kind of hard-boiled detective.

  • Amazon readers rating:from 10 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Marcus Didius Falco mysteries:

Flavia Albia Mysteries:

Other novels:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Lindsey DavisLindsey Davis was born in 1943 and brought up in Birmingham. She earned her English degree at Oxford, then joined the Civil Service. When she first started writing, she wrote romantic serial commissions for Woman's Realm. She then changed to writing about the Romans and published The Course of Honor, which is a remarkable true love story of the Emperor Vespasian and his mistress Antonia Caenis. Research into imperial Rome inspired The Silver Pigs, the first book in the series featuring Marcus Didius Falco, a Roman informer in the AD70s, which has now attracted a devoted readership.

The Silver Pigs won the Authors' Club Best First Novel for 1989, and Davis was awarded the CWA Dagger in the Library (for the author "whose work has given most pleasure") in 1995. More recently, she was thrilled to be the first winner of the new Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and a Sherlock Award to Falco for the Best Comic Detective of 1999.

Davis' books are published in the UK and US, and translated into many other languages. She also writes occasional short stories and articles. She was the 2002 Chair of the UK Crimewriters Association and on the Council of the Classical Association.

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