Marcus Didius Falco—If you don’t know this first-century detective from a superb series of mystery novels set during the early years of the Roman Empire, then you have missed many hours of delightful reading. Lindsey Davis (born 1949) is the English historical novelist who launched Falco onto the literary scene in 1989 with The Silver Pigs, set during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (lived 9-79 CE; ruled 69-79 CE).
In The Silver Pigs Falco stumbles upon a conspiracy that involves trading silver ingots, and the investigation takes him to Britain. There he meets a lady above his station, the daughter of the senator who hired him, named Helena Justina. Against all odds, Falco not only solves the case but also falls in love with the noble lady—and she with him. However, they cannot wed until Falco is raised to the upper middle-class rank of equestrian. And that will take some doing. Thus the stage is set for an unfolding romance (and eventual marriage) that provides a continuing narrative through a long and thoroughly engaging series of novels.
Lindsey Davis, by taking this approach, created both a romantic backstory with three-dimensional characters whom readers become well acquainted with over a number of years and a problem. What happens to your main character (and those around him) as he ages? Moreover, what do you do when he retires? Davis deftly handles the issues of aging as Falco grows in his profession and the relationship between Falco and Helena Justina matures into a longterm marriage, complete with the introduction of children into the family dynamic.
I fretted that Davis might decide to retire with her detective, but in fact she took a more interesting and adventurous turn by focusing on Falco and Helena Justina’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia. This daughter picks up where her father, now comfortably living in retirement, left off, becoming herself an “informer,” the role of first-century private detective. The first of the Flavia Albia novels is The Ides of April, published in 2013. Set in the spring of 89 CE, Flavia Albia even moves into Falco’s old, seedy apartment in Fountain Court, a rundown tenement that Falco now owns. As the story opens, she is a 28-year-old widow.
Davis adeptly negotiates the potential pitfalls of creating a believable female detective working subtly within the constraints of male-dominated Roman society. I recently finished reading Deadly Election, published this year, 2015, and could not be better satisfied with the continuation of this fascinating series through Falco’s daughter. I recommend this series, particularly to readers who love a good mystery and are interested in Roman history, for Davis’s intricately plotted stories also provide a convincing window into everyday life in Ancient Rome.