Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
Minotaur Books, 2006 (originally published in 1989)
352 pages

This book has the dubious distinction of (I think) being the book that I have been reading for longest. In that, I started it sometime last year, and took an enormous hiatus, and picked it back up again just about ten days ago because of a conversation I had with a co-worker who is an avid reader. See, my copy here is an ebook, and while this might have been the longest break I have taken with a book, it's not the first time I have stopped reading an ebook somewhere in the middle just by virtue of the fact that a paper book has come along and supplanted it. Even if I'm enjoying the ebook, they seem to somehow take a lower precedence, particularly if I own the book and it isn't going to vanish back into library holdings within a certain number of days.

I picked up The Silver Pigs exactly where I left off. And even while I wasn't reading this book I was thinking about Falco, wondering how he was getting on. (Not well, as it happened: when I left him, he'd just fallen down an old mineshaft, broken his leg, and it was starting to snow.) I have thought about this book almost more regularly than almost any other for the duration of the hiatus, even if I wasn't quite moved to pick up the book again. I remembered exactly where we were, exactly what had happened prior, and even some of the salient names. That said, it was the names just about undid me, coming back. There are a fairly large number of important characters, all with Ancient Roman names, which do have a habit of sounding somewhat similar to this modern-day Canadian.

I have a very weak spot for historical novels that can really bring the past to life for me, that can make the so-called "little people" of history - not the big names that we all know - as real to me as someone living across the street. I have not made my love of Brother Cadfael and his world a secret here. And it looks like I will have to add Marcus Didius Falco to my list of favourite historical private investigators, too. Fans of Ancient Roman history and trivia in particular should take note: Davis has done her homework. She is also the first to admit (in the Introduction to the edition that I read) that she's probably got some things wrong, in the way that it would almost be impossible to avoid, since we are only ever speculating on exactly how day-to-day life was lived by the Romans. In fact, she notes that in some ways the entire premise of this particular book falls apart since the fraud being committed would have been impossible given new information on how the silver pigs were used.

But halt. What, exactly, is The Silver Pigs about? And no. It has nothing to do with pigs.

Marcus Didius Falco is an informer - what one, these days, might call a private eye. But as Falco is living and working in Rome around 70AD, the term "private eye" would be a bit of anachronism. One day, out in the Forum, Falco bumps into a young woman in obvious distress, and being the rather soft-hearted cad he is, he decides on the spur of the moment to help her out. Unfortunately, it appears that the beautiful young Sosia has gotten herself into much deeper trouble than either of them realize, and it eventually falls to Falco to uncover and thwart a plot that strikes at the very heart of the new Emperor Vespasian.

It's a great deal more complicated than that, and it's also a tremendous amount of fun. The story has a vaguely noir feel to it. Falco is certainly verging on a hardboiled detective, with the same curt way of speaking, the same crusty exterior, the same whatever-it-takes attitude, and the same heart of gold that one expects in the [anti]heroes of that genre. There are beautiful women, dangerous men, a loyal sidekick. There's a dark, self-deprecating sense of humour. But Falco also has a family - a mother he is in awe of, though he tries not to show it, a gaggle of sisters, an adored niece. And the setting is unique, and wonderful. Davis has thoroughly fleshed out Ancient Rome and Britania in a way that really does make it almost tangible to a modern-day reader.

Falco was a bit much for me at first. His hardboiled attitude seemed overblown, a little unbelievable. But he grew on me (like a bad rash, he might say.) Also, as I said above, the names were a bit much for me, and not just when I'd taken a break and was coming back. It took some time for characters not Falco to come into focus and sort themselves out into actual people. Once they did, though, they began to leap off the page in the way Falco did.

I've ended this book craving more Falco, and more Ancient Rome. Lucky for me, there are many more Falco books for me to explore. I shouldn't be starting new series at this point; I have so, so many on the go. But this is one I am very glad I started. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, mysteries, and books that do not take themselves too seriously, but just seriously enough.

5 comments:

Bookwyrme said...

Ingriguing!

Kiirstin Maki said...

Oh, have you read any of these? I think you'd like them. Also has one of the most kick-ass female characters I've encountered lately, Helena Justina. She is just so great.

Bookwyrme said...

I had never even heard of them. Now, I need to find one.

Aarti said...

I love this series! And I agree with Kiirsten. Helena Justina is amazing. While not every mystery is so great, the progression of Falco's life is wonderful to watch.

Kiirstin Maki said...

I think I would totally read this series just for Falco. The mystery is fun, but the setting and Helena Justina and Falco really, really made the book for me.