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The Rambling Writer Book Review: The Marcus Didius Falco historical detective novels by Lindsey Davis

Ancient Rome comes to vivid, quirky life in the Marcus Didius Falco mystery series by Lindsey Davis.

I confess, I have a bit of a crush on Marcus Didius Falco, the sardonic, scruffy former soldier now scraping by in 1st-century AD Rome as an “informer,” what we’d now call a private eye. When Lindsey Davis, retired from the British Civil Service, set out to write an historical novel drawing on her research into ancient Rome, she thought it would be fun to create a P.I. with a twist. In the first of these many award-winning novels, THE SILVER PIGS, instead of the usual “noir” P.I. who is an unattached loner, she saddled Falco with an amusing and mostly annoying extended family. Falco must contend with the antics of his fierce mother and numerous siblings, nephews, and nieces, all of whom inhabit the seedier districts of Rome. In the course of twenty novels, Falco evolves as a character, facing dastardly criminals as well as tricky unofficial commissions from Emperor Vespasian, dangers on the streets of Rome and on missions to wild colonies, run-ins with his arch-enemy the imperial Chief Spy, and headaches trying to scrape up enough coin to help his impoverished clan and pay the overdue rent on his own dilapidated tenement apartment/office:

“My office was two rooms on the sixth floor of a dank tenement where only the dirt and dead bedbugs were cementing together the walls.” The first floor is occupied by a laundry where all visitors are required to pee into a bucket so the owner can avoid the emperor’s tax on urine that is used to bleach senators’ togas.

Throughout, Falco’s humorous commentaries on Roman society and characters, as well as his own tousled image as a lady’s man, keep the reader firmly on his side. Even when he risks a death sentence by climbing into the sacred quarters of the vestal virgins to locate a witness.

The Vestals’ Temple of Venus (columns at left) in the Roman Forum:

Each novel highlights some aspect of life in ancient Rome and its colonies, such as the silver mines in Britannia (the silver pigs are poured ingots). A mission to Hispania explores its olive oil marketing; extended travels in Syria feature Falco’s escape from deadly danger by joining incognito a traveling theater troupe; a mission to North Africa features gladiator culture; each novel also includes some biting commentary by Falco on the corruption of governments and commoners alike. I found myself learning a lot, feeling as if I were trudging the sunny, cobbled streets alongside our intrepid informer as he skewered social pretensions but couldn’t help admiring the beautiful temples as well as the gorgeous frescoes and statues adorning the homes of the wealthy. Any homeowner of means would have household Lares & Penates (replica in top photo beside book cover) protecting the dwelling.

Emperor Vespasian’s son Titus (later to become emperor himself) appears regularly in the series, after he has returned from conquering Judea and looting the Temple, honored by a Triumphal procession and this arch in the Forum:

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You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s Greek islands novel  from Book View Café is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara is at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at



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