Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis

Shadows
Shadows in Bronze
Lindsey Davis
Originally Published 1990
Marcus Didius Falco #2
Preceded by The Silver Pigs
Followed by Venus in Copper

Several months ago I wrote about the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, which I noted I had been trying to read for about fifteen years. I came to the conclusion that I rather liked it and I had been looking forward to seeing more of the character but unfortunately this book reminded me why I struggled to finish the first book for so long.

The novel picks up shortly after the first book left off with the Informer now on Caesar’s staff. He is frustrated with the work assignments he is being given, most of which involve tidying up loose ends from his previous case. The task he is set at the beginning of the novel is to find and bribe or threaten the living conspirators to ensure that they fall in line with the new regime.

That is, unfortunately, about as much as I can say about the plot because what you have in store for yourself is a long, winding novel with new goals emerging in a hydra-like fashion as he completes each task he has set for himself. It gives the plot a sort of rambling, unfocused feeling and I think if you are reading this for the mission you will probably feel frustrated. Davis’ focus, it turns out, is actually on another aspect of Falco’s life.

Now I am not necessarily opposed to an entire novel detailing the status of Falco’s relationship with Helena Justina. She was probably my favorite part of the first novel and I enjoy the interactions between the two and the disconnect we see between Falco’s opinion of his knowledge of women and the actuality where he is clearly quite clueless. The problem from my perspective comes from the lack of surprise in the way that plot unfolds.

Davis is clearly heading somewhere from the moment they first encounter each other again but she plays her hand too clearly, showing exactly where their story is headed in a somewhat testy exchange between the pair. You might argue that this is intended to build suspense except that is not how the rest of their interactions unfold – my belief is that this was meant to be a subtle hint that is anything but and the ending seems to play out as though it is intended to surprise the reader.

This would not be an issue if the case Falco is working on had a stronger sense of urgency or mystery about it but actually for the first half of the book everything feels very straightforward. It can sometimes be interesting to follow how Falco will deal with some of the discontents and to share in his cynical observations about the political elites but there is little here to surprise or shock.

This does change when Davis pulls off a very effective twist in the second half of the novel, giving Falco more immediate stakes in the case and also heightening the danger he faces. I will admit to having been completely surprised by this moment in the novel and it does give the plot a much-needed boost but by that point I was already feeling quite disengaged from the story and that a lot of my time had been wasted with unnecessary details of Falco’s journey and with little purpose.

Which brings me back to the problem that this story is more focused on Falco’s relationship drama than establishing anything approaching a mystery. The reader cannot really predict that twist or many of the developments that follow and by the time it happens it feels like we have strayed a long way from the original mission Falco has been given by Vespasian. Even if I were to focus on appreciating it as a romance rather than as a mystery, the book feels slow and filled with unnecessary padding.

In short, this was a big disappointment given my high expectations for the novel. The characters are still enjoyable but the story here could have been told in half the page count and I do not think much would have been lost. As invested as I am in Falco and Helena’s relationship, the weaknesses in the mystery and adventure elements undermine the novel and make it feel somewhat directionless. My hope is that the subsequent volumes get the series back on track and I will at least be curious to see what becomes of them after the events of this book.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

Silver
The Silver Pigs
Lindsey Davis
Originally Published 1989
Marcus Didius Falco #1
Followed by Shadows in Bronze

Have you ever had a book that you keep buying copies of, starting but never seem to get around to finishing? For me that is Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs, the first of her series that features informer and imperial agent Marcus Didius Falco.

Over the past fifteen years I know I have bought at least three paperback copies and one audiobook and I can remember starting it and abandoning it on two different occasions. This was not because I didn’t care for it but because real life got in the way and by the time I was ready for it again too much time had passed and I felt like I’d have to start over. Would I ever actually finish it?

Obviously I did (I never write about books I didn’t complete) and I am very pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it probably helped that I listened to the audiobook reading by Christian Rodska whose gravelly voice seemed a perfect fit for Falco’s hardboiled narration. I certainly had no difficulty motivating myself to keep going this time and once the second phase of the novel began I finished the rest of the book in two sittings (a task that is fairly tricky to do with a ten hour audiobook!).

The novel begins with Falco encountering a sixteen year old girl in the forum being hassled by some thugs and his stepping in to protect her. After taking her on as his client, he learns that she has been hiding a silver and lead ingot in her lockbox stamped with the imperial seal. The ingot comes from the British mines but what was it doing in Rome?

Falco is soon on the track of a political conspiracy that spans the Empire but his world is turned upside down when the girl turns up dead. He agrees to work for her family to find the murderer and uncover the conspiracy, setting sail for Britain…

In a sense I am glad that I delayed reading this for so long. Back when I first picked up the book I had little knowledge of the hardboiled form and doubt I would have extracted quite the level of enjoyment I did reading this now. While the idea of placing that sort of character in a historical setting seems like it shouldn’t work, I quickly embraced it. Rather than pulling you out of the historical period, it serves to make that culture more accessible.

Falco is a wonderful creation. His cynicism and grouchiness instantly endeared him to me and I think Davis does a good job of building up a good cast of colorful supporting characters around him that help his Rome to come to life. Favorites included Lenia, a laundry owner whose shop is far below Falco’s apartment, his overbearing mother and his dodgy landlord Smaractus who employs training gladiators to collect his overdue rent. I also think Davis presents us with interesting takes on the various members of the Flavian family (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian).

This novel, as I hinted at before, takes place across quite a wide canvas and involves a fairly large number of characters yet I had little difficulty keeping track of who everyone was and what role they were playing. I think that speaks to the quality of Davis’ characterization. Rather than just present us with historical figures or confining the narrative to one strata of Roman society, Davis’ story presents us with characters from a variety of professions and social classes.

The case itself is a good one and perfectly reflects some common hardboiled themes. We get to see government corruption, grift at every level of society and our hero is often in completely over his head. Somewhat surprisingly the trope that isn’t present is the femme fatale, although it would be true to say that Falco is encouraged into action at several points because of his feelings towards certain female characters.

I particularly appreciated Falco’s interactions with Helena Justina, the Senator’s daughter he encounters while visiting Britain. The pair develop quite an enjoyable sparring relationship and I appreciated that as the novel progresses Davis is able to flesh out the character and help us understand what she wants out of life and why her marriage her failed.

Towards the end the reader is likely to get a step or two ahead of Falco and I think one attempt at misdirection is less effective than I think it was meant to be but that did not bother me too much. Even once it becomes clear how the story will end, I think Davis maintains interest in her characters and in how their personal lives will be resolved. I also felt that the ending does a good job of setting up further adventures for Falco, giving readers a reason to quickly return to the character.

While it may have taken me fifteen years to finish it, I really enjoyed reading The Silver Pigs and am looking forward to continuing the series with Shadows in Bronze. Hopefully I will be able to finish that one in a little more timely fashion!