In 70 A.D., all roads lead to Rome, seat of a vast empire. Yet Marcus Didius Falco, ironic fellow that he is, decides to take one of those roads away from Rome and toward Britannia, the empire’s most recent conquest—and, as all Romans know, the home of its most primitive subjects and the site of its foulest weather. (Davis makes great sport of inverting the modern trope in which British colonials complain endlessly about the wretchedness of life in their back-of-beyond territories.) An “informer,” or what citizens of later empires would call a detective, Falco travels to that hinterland to find out who has been diverting “silver pigs” from the island’s grim, slave-worked mines. These “pigs” are ingots of precious metal, bound for the Roman treasury, but a shadowy group has been stealing them in order to fund a coup against the Emperor Vespasian. The tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors has just ended, Vespasian has yet to consolidate his power fully, and conspirators are angling to change the regime once again. These and other events have led to a further irony: Falco, a free man with strong republican leanings, now serves as an agent of the imperial state.
Falco narrates this adventure (his début appearance), and at first his way of turning a phrase suggests that he belongs in the tradition of the jaded, lone-wolf private eye. In the opening scene, he spots a fetching young woman as she flees a pair of goons who have chased her through Rome to the Temple of Saturn. He begins his story thus: “When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.” But although Falco is both tough and witty, he isn’t hard-boiled, and he has something that no self-respecting 20th-century shamus ever had, but that every Roman does have: a big extended family—including, in Falco’s case, a mother who regularly drops in to clean his tenement hovel, taking care each time to remove any loose change or loose women that she finds there.
The mood here is essentially comic. Falco might earn his denarii by plying the crooked streets that branch out from the Forum—the dingy alleyways that, like the fabled sewers below, hold the secrets of Rome’s strength as well as its weakness. Even so, his creator shows less interest in detection than she does in romance. The central drama of this tale concerns its hero’s entanglement with a haughty noblewoman, and its greatest mystery is whether Falco will tame this shrew, or indeed be tamed by her. Davis writes briskly and well, though, and she gives Falco a voice that ably carries a so-so plot.
[ADDENDUM: Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor both launched their series of detective novels set in ancient Rome at about the same time, and new works in each saga continue to appear. The impulse to compare the two franchises is therefore unavoidable. (So, I confess, is the urge to pull out the “All roads lead to Rome” trope when writing about either series.) Davis and Saylor situate their heroes in different eras, and hence the Roman world has a different feel to it in each series: The Rome of Gordianus, still nominally a republic, displays a bracing aura of civitas, and its streets bristle with the sense that great public events can and will unfold in them. By contrast, the Rome of Falco exudes the tired, inward-turning mood of a culture that has settled in for the long haul of imperial decadence; there is life and intrigue aplenty, but all of it takes place behind gated iron doors. At the level of voice and character, however, the two series have a lot in common. Gordianus and Falco each have one sandal-clad foot planted in the ancient world and another foot that tap-dances somewhere outside of it—somewhere closer to the modern world, and to the modern ethos of tolerance and compassion. And each sleuth, following each of his errands into the social and political darkness, return to a boisterous family that grounds him in the cares and compensations of the everyday. In those two ways, each series makes its remote setting appear less alien and, for better or worse, less mysterious.]