The Falco novels by Lindsey Davis are one of my not so secret vices, so I’ve noticed over the years how the tone of the novels has changed. The most recent, The Accusers (Century, 2003), is in many ways the strangest I’ve come across. The jokey tone of the early books has faded over the years, but they have always retained an immediacy, a sense of having been written no later than the next day, so that how things develop and the future of various players in the game remains unknown. But The Accusers is written long after the events, time and again we are told the fate of greater or lesser characters. This witness in a court case became briefly notorious then lost business and eventually committed suicide. These two chacters eventually were made governors of far-flung provinces. This change in tone is disconcerting to say the least, partly because it gives an elegiac quality to the book, and that is something I have not come to expect of Davis. Previously her portrait of Rome in the time of Vespasian was so vivid because it was so immediate, a Raymond Chandler sense of this is the nitty-gritty everyday reality of the place. Now, in stepping back from the moment, even if only briefly, she is creating a sense of this is how things were rather than how they are, and that is an important change.
There are differences, too, in the manner of telling the story. Her plots have become steadily more convoluted as they have become less jokey, but this must rank as the most complex of all. A senator is convicted of corruption. By Roman law, his suicide will relieve his family of the obligation to pay the crippling fine imposed. The senator duly dies. But is it suicide? There are suspicious circumstances. A daughter is tried for his murder, but found innocent. Then his son is accused. Falco decides to defend the son, but the son is so taciturn he would prefer to go to the gallows than betray a family secret. On circumstantial evidence, Falco decides the senator’s wife was the real murderer and brings a charge against her. Then he discovers evidence that someone else was guilty, but the penalty for bringing a false charge could ruin Falco and his associates. We are used to seeing Falco under physical threat (and indeed he is predictably beaten up at one point), but this financial threat is of a different order. All comes right in the end, but there is in the book a strange sense of hesitation over whether to wipe him out or not. Again that elegiac tone.
Partly because the plot is so complex, it is a book that takes a long time to get going. It is the most laboured opening of any of her books. The time scale is significantly drawn out also, the drama stretches over many months rather than the usual few weeks. All of which makes it feel like an entr’acte, a bridge to get her across an awkward dead time in her chronology to some other key moment. (We must, I think, be drawing towards the end of Vespasian’s reign; could that be significant?) What’s more, much of the novel is concerned not with the gathering of evidence, the interviewing of witnesses, but with the details of court cases. Instead of the seamless first person narration throughout (the unfailing voice of every other novel in the sequence) we get transcriptions of the notes that Falco and his colleagues take (with bold headings and a different typeface), and lengthy transcriptions of speeches in court (again with the headings and the different font).
The inevitable effect is to make this feel very different from all the other books in the sequence. Which is not a criticism, in many ways this is one of the most intriguing and satisfying novels we’ve had for some time. But just as Davis seems in so may ways to take a step back from her creation, so we readers are also obliged to take a step back. I am not yet sure what the re-evaluation will result in.
First published at Livejournal, 17 February 2004.