Review: Saturnalia by Lindsey Davis

16 March 2008

saturnaliauk.jpgThe defining characteristics of Lindsey Davis’ long-running series featuring Marcus Didius Falco are that it is set in Ancient Rome – well that’s pretty obvious – but also that the tone and language are refreshingly contemporary. By this I mean that Lindsey Davis makes Falco and his Rome real to us because he and his family and the inhabitants of the Eternal City talk and act the way that we do (well, sort of). She reminds us that people are pretty much the same, whatever the time and place – they have the same emotions, the same drivers and the same responses, as we do. Human behaviour is, well, human.

In Saturnalia, which is set in the festival season we now know as Christmas, Falco is called upon to find the beautiful barbarian leader, Veleda, who has been brought back to Rome as a captive, but has escaped, and may have been involved in the nasty murder of a young man. Needless to say, the unravelling of the mystery involves rivalry with Anacrites, the Chief Spy, drinking and detection with Petronius Longus, and saving Falco’s brother-in-law, Quintus Camillus Justinus from his own folly. Falco’s wife, Helena Justina, as usual plays a major role in resolving matters, and all is sorted to some degree of satisfaction.

When I first started reading these books, I did have some difficulty with the many names, both Roman and non-Roman, and remembering who was who (perhaps that’s why there’s a cast of characters at the beginning). I think I’ve pretty much got that sorted, but I also had the feeling, reading Saturnalia, that it did go on a bit, or perhaps was not as well-paced as most of its predecessors.

In fact, the plot is a bit ho-hum and not all that strong, except in the way that it allows Lindsey Davis to expand our knowledge of the practice of medicine in the Roman age, and the different theories surrounding it, as well as other bits and pieces, like the ownership of slaves and the Saturnalia traditions, that help place the story firmly in its time and place. At the same time we see that many things don’t change – bureaucracy, for example, and family behaviour. It’s all great fun, and one of the real beauties of it all is that technology plays a minimal role. This means that while there is a bit of the old forensic pathology squeezing into this book, for the most part it’s old-fashioned fact-finding linked to knowledge and awareness of human behaviour that sees Falco through (with quite a bit of help from Helena).

Falco does go down some very mean streets, but he’s not a first century equivalent of the hard-boiled PI – he has a wife and family, and while he may sound cynical he’s really a softy, even to Anacrites. He does, however, have the requisite police-type side-kick in Petro, and the dodgy relationship with the authorities, so perhaps he is in the tradition of the PI.

Saturnalia by Lindsey Davis, Arrow Books, 2008 (paperback), ISBN: 9780099493839

Other books by Lindsey Davis:
Featuring Marcus Didius Falco – The Silver Pigs (1989), Shadows in Bronze (1990), Venus in Copper (1991), The Iron Hand of Mars (1992), Poseidon’s Gold (1993), Last Act in Palmyra (1994), Time to Depart (1995), A Dying Light in Corduba (1996), Three Hands in the Fountain (1997), Two for the Lions (1998), One Virgin Too Many (1999), Ode to a Banker (2000), A Body in the Bath House (2001), The Jupiter Myth (2002), The Accusers (2003), Scandal Takes a Holiday (2004), See Delphi and Die (2005)

Other Novels – The Course of Honour (1998)

See Wikipedia page for Lindsey Davis

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Review: Open File by Peter Corris

11 March 2008

openfile.jpgIs Peter Corris trying to phase out Cliff Hardy? Has the tough, smart Sydneysider passed his use-by date? That could well be the impression you get from the latest Cliff Hardy. In Open File, Cliff’s career has ended with the final cancellation of his PI licence. He is tidying up his office and comes across a file from a 20-year old case that was never really solved. The rest of the book is about that case, and takes us back to the time when Cliff was in his prime, Sydney was a rougher, scruffier place than it is now, and technology didn’t intrude too much into the walk down the mean streets.

The old case involved Cliff trying to find a man’s son who disappeared a couple of years before. Of course, it’s not straightforward. Sydney’s criminal element is in the middle of it, there are several deaths, dirty politicians are involved (this is NSW), Cliff’s Falcon was past it thirty year’s ago, and his mouth tries to get him into trouble more than once. And Cliff meets a woman.

The writing is as good as ever. The descriptions and the dialogue are pitched just right, as Peter Corris takes us into the seedy, tired underbelly of Sydney and the sad people who exist there. He gives us Cliff Hardy, one of my favourite PIs (or should we say PEAs), with the right mix of toughness, experience, understanding and compassion to make his books a pleasure to read.

But this one does seem a bit tired. The characters are a bit too close to being caricatures, and the way people and events work out doesn’t quite ring true. Perhaps the old flashback to the past approach isn’t the way to capture the best of Cliff Hardy, and it seems unlikely that he will ever really be at home in the brave new world of investigation that technology has led us to. So maybe he should just take off into the sunset – or was this what Peter Corris was trying to do? After all, Cliff Hardy was introduced in The Dying Trade in 1980, and was having trouble with his Falcon even then. Cliff was ex-army, ex-Malaya, and ready for action. The writing, the characters and the sense of place were as good then as they are now. But it also means that Cliff Hardy must be getting on in years, so perhaps he should retire.

Open File by Peter Corris, published by Allen & Unwin, 2008, ISBN: 978 1 74175 417 9

Other books by Peter Corris:

Cliff Hardy series – The Dying Trade (1980), White Meat (1981), The Marvellous Boy (1982), The Empty Beach (1983), Heroin Annie [SS] (1984), Make Me Rich (1985), The Big Drop [SS] (1985), Deal Me Out (1986), The Greenwich Apartments (1986), The January Zone (1987), Man in the Shadows [SS] (1988), O’Fear (1990), Wet Graves (1991), Aftershock (1991), Beware of the Dog (1992), Burn and Other Stories [SS] (1993), Matrimonial Causes (1994), Casino (1994), The Washington Club (1997), The Reward (1997), The Black Prince (1998), The Other Side of Sorrow (1999), Lugarno (2001), Salt and Blood (2002), Master’s Mates (2005), The Coast Road (2005), Saving Billie (2005), Taking Care of Business [SS] (2006), The Undertow (2006), Appeal Denied (2007)

Luke Dunlop, an agent for the Witness Protection Agency – Set Up (1992), Cross Off (1993), Get Even (1994),

Ray Crawley, Federal Security Agency director in Sydney, – Pokerface (1987), The Baltic Business (1988), The Kimberly Killing (1990), The Cargo Club (1990), The Azanian Action (1991), The Japanese Job (1992), The Time Trap (1994), The Vietnam Volunteer (2000),

Richard Browning, an adventurer and sometime actor – “Box Office” Browning (1987), “Beverly Hills” Browning (1987), Browning Takes Off (1989), Browning in Buckskin (1991), Browning P.I. (1992), Browning Battles On (1993), Browning Sahib (1994), Browning Without a Cause (1995)

Historical Novels – The Gulliver Fortune (1989), Naismith’s Dominion (1990), The Brothers Craft (1992), Wimmera Gold (1994), The Journal of Fletcher Christian (2005)

Other books – The Winning Side (1984)