Silver Pigs is a hard-boiled historical mystery set in ancient Rome, specifically, in the reign of Vespasian, just after the turbulence that followed Nero’s death.
I’ve frequently enjoyed historical mysteries, but they rarely succeed for me on both levels — either the period detail is compelling and the mystery is a bit slight, or the other way around. I appreciate the sly humor of transposing the tropes of modern crime fiction to a historical setting — the good centurion/bad centurion interview, say — but that sort of injoke can’t sustain whole a novel. Silver Pigs balances its two aspects remarkably well. We recently watched (and for the most part liked) the HBO series Rome. Silver Pigs offers similar ambiance and takes a similar tack: it looks at court intrigue and large-scale historical events from the vantage of Rome’s merchant class. The mystery at the heart of the novel is credible for the time period, and consistent with some archeological detail; the who-betrayed-whom? plot twists get positively Chandler-esque. The first-person narrator, one Marcus Didius Falco, a retired soldier turned “informer” (in Davis’s hands, the Roman equivalent of the modern detective) owes a clear stylistic debt to Chandler and Hammett’s iconic Philip Marlowe and Continental Op. But I was also reminded of Georgette Heyer’s hybrid romance/mysteries. Falco isn’t quite as cynical and embittered as he’d like to think he is, which suited me just fine, and the female characters don’t have to submit to Chandler’s bubble head/black widow dichotomy.
Up until the last 40 pages or so of Silver Pigs, I was having trouble remembering the last time I’d enjoyed a mystery novel as much. I tried to read more slowly to make it last longer. Perhaps partly because I was lingering, I felt Davis tipped her hand too much at the end; Falco almost literally stumbled over a major clue before he recognized it for what it was. There was also some significant inconsistency — Falco withholds information from the reader to increase the suspense. I don’t have any trouble with that per se, but his internal monologue doesn’t jibe with what he knows, but the reader doesn’t (yet). Even though I found the dénouement less than completely satisfying, it was certainly forgivably so (particularly for a beginning novelist). I’ve already submitted a library request for the next volume (Shadows in Bronze) in the series that Silver Pigs kicks off. There seem to be approximately 8 zillion more volumes, and I fear I may be entering into the sort of brief, torrid affair I had with Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels a few years ago.
Needs More Demons? No.