More historical fiction – this time set in Ancient Rome

I have often said, and I have truly believed, that I don’t read much historical fiction. Looking carefully at my reading this for this month I find that quite a lot of what I have read is historical fiction of one sort or another, often crime novels. Maybe that has always been the case ! I think I shall have to stop saying that I don’t read this type of book much when that is evidently not true.

The Marcus Didius Falco books by Lindsey Davis are set furthest back in history that I have read, and will probably read. The setting is Ancient Rome. The story starts with The Silver Pigs which is an excellent beginning and then runs for exactly twenty titles. I’ve read most of them before and am currently rereading the whole series. See here for a review of an earlier instalment. There is also an enjoyable spin-off series which is still being added featuring Falco’s adopted daughter.

I have reached the eighth book in the series – A Dying Light in Cordoba. Falco is an informer which means that he is a sort of commissioned private investigator, often working for the Emperor. A rising official in the Palace asks Falco to a dinner to honour a number of olive oil salesmen from Spain. He attends but the next day one of the other attendees is dead and the Chief Spy, whom Falco despises, is very ill. He is asked to investigate and is forced to travel to Spain as the party guests have already departed. When he arrives he discovers that someone wants to stop him investigating and that the murders are going to continue until he finds the culprit and stops them.

This is quite a complicated plot and needs a reasonable amount of concentration but fortunately the author always puts a list of characters at the front of her novels so you can keep track of the people. You don’t, however, read these books for their plots but for the narrative voice of Falco who is worldly wise, much put upon and very cynical. He pretends to be tougher than he actually is and he cares about fairness and justice in a world where there is little of either. Falco also wants to ascend the social ranks because of the love he has for Helena Justina who is a Senator’s daughter. Helena and he live together and consider themselves married but that is actually unlawful and it is only because her father likes him that they can do this – he wants to make it legal but he will need to accumulate lots of money in order to buy his way up the class system.

This book proceeds at a cracking pace. It is clever and amusing but the author has time to include sadness and tenderness as well. Helena is pregnant with Falco’s child in this story and because she has lost a previous baby she is very worried, as is Falco but she still accompanies him on his mission. This underlying tension means that Falco wants to keep the investigation short and to get home to Rome as soon as possible to ensure the safety of the baby but he becomes more and more frustrated as new lines of enquiry emerge and he is delayed. There is also a piece towards the end of the book where Falco is able to get a form of revenge for something which happened in the very first book of the series which is very satisfying for those of us who have followed his story.

This is a fun crime series. The characterisations are good and the author has created a touching and believable relationship between Helena and Falco which is at the centre of the stories. The plots are interesting and lots of different aspects of Roman history are explored. I recommend them but suggest that you start with the first book (I always suggest that because I find it very unsettling to start a series anywhere else myself).

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