The 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