Monday, 5 May 2008

Saturnalia - Lindsey Davis

The author of the Falco series (of which this is the eighteenth) is the first to admit they are ‘light reading’. This does rather depend on your definition of ‘light’, but on the whole I would agree. They are entertainments, well researched and with an amusing take on life in the Roman world of the first century AD.

The series started well; hit what I felt was a rocky patch where the tone of the books seemed spiteful; and regained a sunnier outlook. Sadly, they have lost a great deal as the series progresses. Falco seems to have become infallible. The books lack tension or dramatic urgency. You know the main characters will come through with minor abrasions whilst new faces in the immediate background are the ones for the chop (one of the hazards of a first person narrative). The books have become a bit self-congratulatory.

Take this most recent story. There is a great deal in there that could have provided real tension, real drama, and dealt with social issues that are inevitable in any crime book. The search for an escaped high ranking prisoner felt contrived – stretched out for no apparent reason with a swift ‘why didn’t I think of that before’ as an excuse. The murder apparently connected with the escape is treated in lacklustre fashion and again feels contrived. You can see the plot devices sticking out like badly set broken bones. And the background story of the murder of down-and-outs and runaway slaves is so cursory as to be an insult. It would have made an excellent story in itself.

As for the conclusion… When you write a story with several threads you must either tie them together in an ingenious fashion that the reader just didn’t see coming (despite all the clues being there); or you must risk what this book achieves – an almighty anti-climax. The absconded prisoner is found and then some chapters later we have the murder solved. Then a bit later… you get the picture. What with that and the abrupt finish, I feel that Ms Davis needs to take stock and take a few risks.

I still enjoy the books. It is a remarkable feat to keep a series running for so long. The research is equally prodigious and rarely intrusive. And the author can write. It would, however, be good to feel that the main characters are in real danger; it would be good to have a more rigorous plot that flows naturally from the circumstances, rather than three stitched together to pad out the book.