The first installment of this historical fiction detective series is as stereotypically a “hard boiled” crime fiction book as you can get with a setting in Ancient Rome. . . . which makes it very amusing on a meta level, since the author adds a great deal of humor to the story by overlaying the ancient setting with noir crime fiction tropes.
It begins in Rome in AD 70, a year after Vespasian seized the throne of the Roman Empire. Our narrator, a P.I., introduces himself by declaring, “Some men are born lucky; others are called Didius Falco.” Falco, 29 when the story starts, acquaints us with his office on the sixth floor of a dank tenement and tells us about his family members, who play large roles in his life. (In the Author’s Introduction, Davis explains that she provided Falco with “a rampaging Italian family headed by a forthright mother . . . Family responsibility was a duty for a Roman male, and I wanted him to have the right preoccupations – even when he is trying hard to avoid them.”)
Falco gets caught up in a murder that seems to be related to the smuggling of “silver pigs” out of Britain. Silver pigs were heavy ingots made of silver and lead ore mined in Britain and shipped back to Rome. The government claimed ownership of the precious ore, but some of it was clearly being skimmed off at some point in the production process.
Falco is asked to work undercover in the lead mines to see how the ingots were stolen, how they were carried to Italy, by whom, how concealed, and who was in on the loop. He agreed (for the money of course), and barely survived the ordeal.
Afterward, he gets involved with Helena Justina, the cousin of the murdered victim. Helena has more moxie than he could have imagined, and he is delighted to find she makes a good partner, in every sense. But they don’t seem to have any future together; he is just an investigator, and she is the daughter of a senator, which amounted to an almost insuperable barrier.
Toward the end of this installment, we get the Ancient Rome version of the hard-boiled tribute to Chinatown:
“It was night. Rome simmered with bad deeds and unholy cries. An owl shrieked above the Capitol. I heard the mean lilt of a sad flute piercing the city streets with man’s injustice to woman, and the gods’ injustice to men.”
Evaluation: The author seems to be channeling Raymond Chandler’s fictional character Philip Marlowe, who is a wisecracking, hard-drinking private eye with a philosophical bent and a penchant for poetry (traits all shared by Falco). With Davis’s addition of endearing characters and the educational setting in Ancient Rome, she has created a winning combination. I can see why the author has been so successful; at this writing there are twenty novels in the Falco series, and even an “Official Companion” with background, illustrations, and maps of Rome. (You can learn more about it here.)
Published by Crown Publishing Group, 1989