Sunday, August 29, 2010

Review: "The Silver Pigs," Lindsey Davis

By Paul Carrier

A hard-boiled “informer” (aka detective) plies his trade in the streets of imperial Rome and the silver mines of occupied Britain in this, the first of Lindsey Davis’ many novels featuring the wisecracking gumshoe (or should that be gum sandal?) Marcus Didius Falco.

Cynical, tough-talking and noble in a seedy sort of way, Falco is a democrat in an age of emperors. The Roman Republic is long gone by 70 A.D., and the emperor Vespasian rules the empire as it recovers from the troubled reign of Nero, whose suicide in 68 A.D. triggered a year-long civil war that eventually brought Vespasian to power.

Against that turbulent backdrop, Falco comes to the rescue of a 16-year-old girl who is being chased through the streets of Rome by unknown villains.

As the story unfolds, we discover that Sosia Camillina, the imperiled heroine, is the niece of Senator Decimus Camillus Verus, who has stored a stolen ingot of British silver (one of the silver pigs of the title) in a strongbox belonging to his niece.

Verus says he learned of the ingot's existence after it was accidentally abandoned in the street. Citing  information from overseas connections, he concludes that the ingot is one of many that have disappeared from Roman mines in Britain.

Falco takes on the task of finding out who stole the cache of silver pigs, and where the rest of them are to be found. His assignment takes on added urgency when Sosia is found murdered in an abandoned warehouse.

What looks like the work of greedy thieves quickly takes on political overtones when it appears that whoever brought the loot to Rome did so to bribe the Praetorian Guards into supporting a coup against the emperor.

Falco, who grew to hate Britain while serving there with the legions years earlier, returns to the cold, inhospitable isle to get to the bottom of the thefts. There he meets Verus' haughty daughter, Helena Justina, who proves to be a key player in the events that follow.

When the blunt Falco, who narrates the story, isn’t peppering friend and foe alike with wise-guy observations and smart-alecky questions, he shares his jaded but witty musings with the reader.

“I like my women in a few wisps of drapery: then I can hope for a chance to remove the wisps,” Falco announces early on. “If they start out with nothing I tend to get depressed because either they have just stripped off for someone else or, in my line of work, they are usually dead.”

The result is an entertaining tale that will leave readers chuckling, and maybe even laughing aloud from time to time, as Falco spouts off about the corrupt and unstable city that he continues to love despite himself.

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer said when The Silver Pigs was first published, Falco is “Sam Spade in a ratty toga.” The one discordant note, in my view, occurs when Falco falls in love. At that point, Davis' over-the-top prose reads like something from a romance novel gone awry, but the lapse is brief.

Davis is one of at least three major mystery novelists who have mined ancient Rome in recent years, the others being Steven Saylor, the creator of Gordianus the Finder, and John Maddox Roberts, the author who gave as Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger.

The works of all three have their merits, but Davis is the only one to use a no-nonsense private eye as her protagonist. The resulting dialogue, which is clipped and crisp, will please some readers and alienate others. Either way, there’s no denying that Falco has a style and a voice all his own.