Got Some Book Tokens? -- by Susan Price

'The Silver Pigs' - Davis

(Long blog warning. Sorry, couldn't curb my enthusiasm.)

Got any book tokens left over from Christmas?

Just in case, I’ll pass on this advice, which was given to me, at regular intervals, by my good friend, Karen Bush.

“Read the Falco books.”

Karen, excellent editor and avid reader, put me onto many great reads: most notably the ‘Song of Fire and Ice’ sequence by George R. R. Martin, and the wonderful ‘Six Duchies’ books of Robin Hobb. Also, Hobb’s lesser-known, but excellent ‘Soldier Son’ trilogy.

Karen and I often exchanged notes about what we were reading (both of us were always reading something) and then she’d demand, “Have you read the Falco books yet?  No?— Well, read them.”

Karen had regularly proved that she knew a good book when she met it, but still, I never got around to Falco.

I think I'd got it into my head that they were an Ancient Roman version of the Brother Cadfael series: that is, 'murder-mysteries' set in the past, with an historically accurate background and a main character ingeniously solving crimes without any modern forensic aids.

Brother Cadfael
But, back off, Cadfael fans! I do not intend, by this, any criticism of the Cadfael books. I’ve enjoyed reading most, quite possibly all, of them. But then, I’ve always been interested in what might be loosely called ‘the medieval period.’ I didn’t have— then— any equivalent interest in Ancient Rome, and so the idea of ‘a Roman Cadfael’ didn’t much appeal.

Then, very suddenly, unbelievably, Karen died. And I miss her. It seemed important to read the Falco books.

As usual, Karen was absolutely right. They are cracking reads that I should have fallen headlong into years ago. There are twenty books in the series. Twenty books! Twenty books worth of page-turning and staying awake into the small hours to read the next bit. And the next bit. And the next chapter…Or two...

Karen and I could have had our own Falco book-club, as we did a Pratchett book-club. What a fool I was, not to have immediately jumped to it and read Falco, when first ordered. If I had, I might have shared the series with my father too, as I did Pratchett’s Disc-World books. He would have loved Falco as much as Captain Vimes.

Thing is, when I was dodging reading the Falco books, I thought they were straight-forward  'Historical Crime.' I  didn't appreciate how many sides to them there are, or on how many different levels they work. 

They are wonderful historical novels.

Rome itself comes to noisy, shoving, pushing, stinking, crowded, mucky life, in all its filth, din, poverty, privilege, injustice and lawlessness. And like all good fictional detectives, Falco loves his city and misses it painfully when he's forced to be away.

Must cakes: follow for recipe

Mulsum and must cake, street cafes, temple sacrifices, low-life, officialdom, boots that cause blisters and tunics with fish sauce stains and fraying braid... All the details of everyday life are casually mentioned in passing, raged about, laughed at, as if it was all just as ordinary, present and annoying as life in the 21st Century.

In addition, the Falco books are a great laugh.

I wasn’t at all prepared for how funny the books are. Similar books may have their amusing moments, but the Falco books are often laugh-out-loud funny. 

Falco narrates his own stories and Falco is a vivid presence, with a wonderful turn of phrase:- His wife doesn't like something he says and 'shot me a look that would have skinned a weasel.' The liveliness of the prose throughout makes other novels seem very flat.

There is not much of the cool, classical, toga-clad Roman about Falco, raised, as he was, in the rough, over-crowded, crime-pestered slums of the Aventine Hill (though he does drape himself in a rather worn and tatty, second-hand toga occasionally, under protest, when forced to look respectable, rather like a modern man changing his jeans for a suit.) Forget classical Latin epigrams. Falco’s chat has more of the stand-up comic’s one-liners about it.

Although set in the past and very funny, they are certainly not 'cosy crime.' They're full of fights, plotting and general vicious ill-will.

Nasty murders must be solved. Gangs of robbers create mayhem. Mafiosa types are causing misery. Rome has, at last, the first half-way decent and sane Emperor it’s had for years and what-d’ye-know, plotters are out to depose him. Falco is usually in the thick of it all, dodging, weaving, thumping and getting thumped.
'The first half-way decent and sane Emperor...'  Vespasian
            When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.
It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate… People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist— and in the backstreets of the Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women. 
I was standing in the Forum. She was running. She looked overdressed and dangerously hot, but sunstroke or suffocation had not yet finished her off… when she hurtled up the steps of the Temple of Saturn straight towards me, I made no attempt to move aside. She missed me, just. Some men are born lucky: others are called Didius Falco.

          The Silver Pigs, Lindsey Davis

The opening paragraphs of the first book, The Silver Pigs. The girl is being chased by ‘two ugly lumps of jail-fodder, jelly-brained and broad as they were high…’ Of course, Falco, our hero, promptly deals with the ugly lumps and rescues the girl, because he isn’t just handsome, witty and charming with a shaggy mop of black curls falling over melting dark eyes. Oh no. He’s also an ex-legionary and hard-as-nails street-fighter, packing an illegal dagger hidden in his boot. (It was illegal for civilians to carry weapons on the streets of Rome.)

The books are very tongue in cheek.

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler famously wrote: 

“…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero… He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be…a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

 “He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him…”

Since Lindsey Davis consciously took the ‘classic’ 1930s detective stories as a starting point for her Falco novels, I’m sure it’s no accident that this could almost be a character sketch of Falco. If you add a good few laughs.

Almost. Falco is honourable and honest and certainly proud (although he’d make a joke about it.) He isn’t mean, but he is a bit tarnished and often— for good reason— afraid. (The number of beatings he takes, it’s a wonder he makes it through five books, let alone twenty. And even more of a wonder that he preserves his 'Etruscan' nose and good looks.)

But ‘a lonely man’? This has to be one of Davis’ in-jokes. The classic 1930s ‘tec is lonely. He has no wife and changes his women more often than his underwear. He is a childless bachelor, seemingly without any close friends or relatives. All the better to be free when Trouble comes calling. Off he wanders, down those mean streets, all on his lonely lonesome, seeking out crime to fight and wrongs to right.

But Marcus Didius Falco is Italian. A Roman. He'd probably love to be 'a lonely man' (at least once in a while, for a rest) but he doesn't stand a chance.

When we first meet Falco, in The Silver Pigs, he does live alone, as every proper seedy Private Eye should. His home is a tiny two-room apartment on the sixth floor of one of those flimsy Roman tenements that were always on the point of falling down. (And frequently did. And in one of the Falco books, does.) A typical, grimy, gritty, cheap dive.

Alone -- except that Falco’s fierce old mother is always coming round to tidy up, collect his washing, leave him some home-cooking, chase off any floozies Falco has mislaid and then give him Hades about either them or something else. Falco lives in fear of her. Well, if not fear, then certainly keen apprehension. Phillip Marlowe never had to put up with this.

Falco also has five sisters, and quarrels with most of them, most of the time, except his favourite, the youngest and closest to him in age. He even quarrels with her sometimes. Nor is she ever slow to tell him exactly what she thinks of him and his doings.

These five sisters have lumbered him with five brothers-in-law, all of whom he hates and considers dead-beats. Together with his sisters, they’ve produced an ever-growing number of nephews and nieces for Falco to feel responsible for, because their fathers are so useless.

Oh, and Falco has a father of his own, Geminus, an auctioneer, who ran away with a red-head when Falco was seven, leaving Falco’s mother to bring up her children alone. People are always telling Falco (to his great annoyance) that he is just like his father, in looks and character, but Falco has never forgiven Geminus for his desertion and they have a difficult relationship. If ever they seem on the point of becoming friends, Falco manages to find some reason to fall out again. -- But the reader can see, between the lines, that whatever Geminus' reason for leaving his family, he is proud of his son and quite eager to help him out and rebuild their relationship. But Falco hates having to accept anything from him.

Also unlike the classic ‘30s PE, Falco has friends as well as family. Among them is the old harridan who runs the laundry on the ground floor of his tottering tenement and regularly screams friendly abuse at him. There’s Thalia, the scary animal-trainer and snake-dancer (and her even scarier snake); and there’s his best friend, Petronius Longus, a watch captain of the Vigils (something between a fire-fighting squad and a police force).

Falco and Petronius served together in Britain at the time of the Boudiccan rebellion (and both heartily detest the gods-forsaken, cold, wet place.) The experience left them disillusioned with the glory that is Rome, but strongly bonded as friends. 'Petro' often seems to fill the place of Falco's dead older brother, looking out for him and admonishing him in an almost fatherly way. -- Davis' characters are never simple, though. Petro is a loyal friend, a level-headed and responsible Watch Captain, a doting father, and also a terrible philanderer, always chasing some new mistress and expecting his wife to tolerate it. 

As well as Falco's one-liners, the books are full of sly, subtextual jokes you could easily miss if you aren't expecting them.

I think I did miss a lot because it took me a while to grasp that I wasn't reading a simple, straight-forward 'whodunnit?' I suspect that many jokes flew straight past me. Still, maybe I'll catch them on re-reading.

Not wanting to spoil others' fun, I'll mention just one.

In ‘Last Act in Palmyra’ Falco joins a travelling actors’ troupe. Short of cash, Falco unwillingly takes on the hack-job of patching together bits of old plays to come up with something that the company can present as new at their next stop. It's a frustrating task, and since Falco is an amateur (and unappreciated) poet, he soon concludes that he could write a new play which would be just as good, if not better, than anything in the repertoire. 

So he writes a comedy called ‘The Spook Who Spoke’ about a young man who meets the ghost of his father… 

From 'Hamlet and Suetonius' by E. G. Berry
It seems there really was a Roman forerunner of 'Hamlet.' And Falco wrote it.

Throughout this book situations keep arising which are oddly reminiscent of events in various Shakespearian plays. I daresay I’d have spotted more if I knew more Shakespeare.

In the other books, hidden beneath the story-line, there are many other jokes, and all the tropes of the classic detective story are played with gleefully.

Roman woman of Flavian period

The twenty books are one long, developing love story.

In the first book, the Emperor Vespasian sends Falco on a mission  to Britain. On reporting to Britain’s Governor, Falco meets another visitor: Helena Justina Camillus, the Governor’s niece and a senator’s daughter to boot.

Naturally, he and Helena hate each other on sight. He, being a mere plebeian, is beneath her in every way, and she is right out of his league: too beautiful, too rich, too high-caste. She proves to be intelligent and well-read too, with a sharp wit and a cutting tongue. A tart, snobbish piece, he thinks.

Naturally, after other adventures and pummellings (and nearly dying), Falco ends up being hired as her bodyguard for the long, hazardous journey back to Rome. And, naturally, they end up in bed and begin a passionate, loving but sometimes fraught partnership that runs through every one of the following nineteen books.

I don't feel guilty about that Spoiler, because anybody who's read a few novels would see this coming a long way off. I mean, what a cliché. The ‘meet-cute,’ the love-affair that begins with dislike and misunderstanding on both sides and ends on the heights of dizzy romance and happy (almost) ever after. Predictable, or what.

But it doesn't matter at all. What makes these books so good and compulsively readable is the sparkle of the prose and the sheer power and conviction of the characterisation.

Did somebody commit a murder?— Who cares? The murder is just a maguffin, allowing Falco to have hairy adventures, and allowing us to hang out with him and Helena, and have Petro drop in with an amphora… An excuse for us to overhear another squabble with Falco’s sisters or his father, or brother-in-law, or Helena’s brothers. (One Camillus brother likes Falco and is pleased to see his sister happy with a man who is devoted to her. The other is appalled by her scandalously living with such low-caste rough trade because it might damage his own future in the Senate.)

Practically everyone who so much as crosses a page is strongly characterised, with a vivid impression of what they look like, how they speak and do their hair, what colour their tunic is, what they smell like... The stray dog, Nux, who acquires Falco despite all the resistance Falco can muster, is as lively a character as any of them. The reader feels that Lindsey Davis has spent many hours observing the behaviour of mad, hairy little dogs. Even a feral cat (Stringy) which hangs about a street food stall for all of two pages is sharply drawn.

And although Lindsey Davis has said she prefers dogs to children, Falco's small daughters (when they arrive) are wonderfully vivid portraits of children, from the games they play, to the way they crane around the bedroom door to peer at Falco when he's catching up on sleep after one of his adventures. Having made sure that it is him, safely home again, they run off, laughing. His hordes of nephews and nieces are, likewise, individual, robust personalities, whether five years old, or twelve, or fifteen. They are so recognisable, you feel that you've met them.

Helena Justina is every bit as vivid and many-sided a character as Falco. As a senator’s daughter, she's educated and loves reading, so she's always happy -- indeed, eager -- to help Falco with research in libraries and archives. There's a standing joke about her always being curled up on every cushion in the house, with her nose stuck in a scroll. (A joke made about her author, I wonder?)

Helena's high social standing gives her entrance to many grand homes where the slaves would drive Falco off with sticks, and she can gossip with and ask questions of, people he would never get near. Even when making inquiries among the lower orders, she can use her status and classy charm to wheedle information from aspiring snobs who would tell him where he could go.
It's unusual, of course, for a senator's daughter to hob-nob with a plebeian, but when Helena met Falco, she had already tried conventional marriage within her own class. Her husband proved to have no interest in her whatsoever beyond her money. So, bored, lonely and miserable, she divorced him-- which I was surprised to learn Roman women could do. But I've learned an awful lot about the Roman Empire from the Falco books. In fact, I'm now quite interested in Roman history. More than I ever was before.

After her divorce, Helena decides that perhaps there's more to life than obeying convention, and, on finding a handsome bit of rough who adores her, she allows him some very hands-on adoring. Her high-ranking family just have to put up with it. Some of them find this easier than others.
Falco's first impression was correct: Helena is very intelligent, well-read and often scathingly sharp and outspoken. But he learns that she's also compassionate and loving, fair-minded and quick to stand up both for herself and others.

She is also quite jealous. Knowing that Falco's eye is always drawn to a beautiful woman (and that women's eyes are often drawn to him), she frequently insists on accompanying him on his investigations, so she can both size up the opposition and fend it off. Or even sneaks off by herself to meet with and interview female suspects.

Helena is, convincingly and enjoyably, Falco's other half.

 As for Falco, I think he is the most masculine detective created by a woman that I’ve ever come across. Possibly this is because he isn't simply a cartoon 'hard man' -- in fact, in many ways he's anything but 'hard'. He's warm, affectionate, protective and funny. (The acknowledgements in one book thank Richard for ‘keeping things masculine.’ Richard did a good job.)

Other fictional male detectives may take cocaine and play the violin to help them solve crimes, or cudgel the little grey cells while they drink tea, or droop and muse in an aristocratic manner. Falco prefers to do his deepest thinking with his hand down the front of Helena’s dress. Which reminded me so much of a non-detecting Celt I know that I laughed aloud when I read it. Observational comedy.

Falco thinks about a lot of things besides sex -- food, poetry, wine, his sore feet, his mother, his sisters, money or lack of it -- but his thoughts do turn to sex a lot. However, his readers know what Helena Justina cannot know -- that he is utterly besotted by her and always afraid that she will leave him. (Everyone he knows is always telling him that she will.) When she’s angry and berates him, he’s thrilled because if she didn't care about him, she wouldn't be angry. When she makes fun of him, he’s thrilled, because that means she notices what he does. When she's jealous, he's thrilled, because it means she sees him as her property and he's very happy to be that. He loves to see her disconcert other people, who expect her to be silent and self-effacing, as a well brought up, modest, quiet Roman matron should be. He's as proud of her as she is of him.

So, let's see, that's an adventure story, set against a brilliantly recreated Roman background, with lots of action, crackling prose, brilliant dialogue, superb characterisation, lots of laughs...

Plus lots of hidden jokes, and, even in the midst of the adventure, send-ups of all the detective story tropes...

 -- oh, and a murder to solve thrown in.

The Falco books are, like the Cadfael series, excellent 'historical detective stories' -- but they're an awful lot more at the same time.

Instead of each story being a self-contained puzzle, there's a strong, continuing story-line from book to book, with Falco and Helena becoming older, having children, prospering a little... It's a good idea to read the books in sequence, so you can follow the progress of a substantial cast of characters.

In between reading Falco books, I happened to read a couple of other detective novels, both from highly praised, best-selling authors, whose books have been turned into television series. I won't name the writers or series here because, I'm afraid, compared to Falco, I thought them dead ducks. The books turned entirely around their less than fascinating 'murder mystery' while characterisation seemed perfunctory. They seemed written by numbers. I turned back to Falco with delight and relief.

Falco and Helena— I think I’m in love with both of them. Certainly, it’s been a long time since I’ve read a series of books that I’ve enjoyed so much. The story-telling and the prose crackles. The dialogue is about as good as dialogue gets. The characters kick their legs over the edge of the page, jump out of the book, stick the kettle on and hunt through your cupboards for biscuits.

Thank you, Karen.

 “Read the Falco books.”


Griselda Heppel said…
No need for long blog warning... I could read about Falco till the cows come home. THANK YOU for this glorious, sparkling reminder of these wonderful books. Lindsay Davis is indeed a tiptop writer and true inheritor of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L Sayers because she combines brilliant detective stories with witty comedy and intelligent, heart-stopping romance founded on deep human relationships. I haven't read one for years and you've brought all those feelings back, I must ransack my bookshelves forthwith. And I'd forgotten Falco has 5 sisters! Heavenly detail.

Have you read Davis's The Course of Honour? I loved it even more than the Falco books. Based on the true story of Vespasian's relationship with the freed slave, Caenis, it has all the Falco/Helena romantic qualities and more. Davis's historical research is extraordinary.

I LOVE the Hamlet joke. As you say, there are probably dozens of these clever academic flourishes for those in the know. The woman is a genius.
Susan Price said…
I am saving up The Course of Honour and her Seventeenth Century books until I've exhausted the Falco's, if that ever happens. Totally agree, Griselda, that Davis is a genius.

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