The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

(Kind of a big series spoiler but not really)

It is good to come from a family of readers. Not only will you have a never ending supply of books to steal borrow, but it will give you a list of books with memories forever attached to them. The Silver Pigs, the start of a detective series set in ancient Rome, is one of them. You see, my mother’s father was a big fan. I forget whether I was given this book for a birthday, or discovered it in his tiny cubbyhole of a study that was half bookcases and decided it looked better company than my family that day (families of readers understand such behaviour), but either way I was hooked.

Around twenty years later, I still am.

The secret of The Silver Pigs lies in its lead and his main foil. Marcus Didius Falco is an informer (here portrayed as a private eye) stuck halfway between cynic and romantic, part streetwise pleb from the Aventine who likes little more than a drink and a good looking woman to look at (and maybe more) and part educated wit with wild dreams, forever laughing and raging at life. There’s a few women he butts heads with in this book but most of the times it Helena Justina, a stubbornly idealistic Senator’s daughter with a wicked sense of humour, here recovering from a recent divorce. They butt heads wonderfully; in case you hadn’t guessed, this book has quite a Romance subplot here. I would have enjoyed watching Falco and Helena do anything if written by Lindsey Davis.

The fact they solve mysteries makes it a huge amount fun on top of that.

Here the mystery starts with another lady, one pursued by thugs in the forum on a hot summer day. Falco intervenes – more out of boredom and lust than any other motivation – and soon finds himself sucked into a mission to find the source of precious metals intended to finance a conspiracy against the new Emperor, Vespasian. It’s one that takes Falco from senatorial homes to British mines, all via ‘glamourous’ journeys and time spent with his large, bickering family. That’s one of the many things I like about the Falco books; he’s not some loner with only brooding tragedies and deadly women for company, he’s a put upon rogue with friends, sisters, despised in-laws, and a mother he fears and loves.

Another is the amount of detail and tact Davis puts into describing ancient Rome. She clearly did a lot of research, and probably did a fair bit of thinking on how to portray it. Marriage is at least as much about advantage as affection; slavery exists; Rome prospers due to constant violent expansion. All of these things are shown to be true without turning them into the focus of a different, harsher book. Falco, while not exactly supportive of them, doesn’t exactly fight it either. He’s a weary, sardonic observer of his culture’s cruelties, and occasional supporter. Falco’s a good egg, but not without his flaws.

My only complaint is that this is the sort of mystery where everything falls into place at the last, rather than one you can solve yourself. Which is more a case of expectations than anything else. Everything else here just feels as readable and feel good as it ever did. Hopefully, if you pick this series up, you’ll have the same experience too.

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