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Murder, mystery and a riotous romp through Ancient Rome

Bron Sibree chats to Lindsey Davis about the latest book in her lighthearted and witty Flavia Albia detective series

16 January 2022 - 00:00 By Bron Sibree
Lindsey Davis, the queen of Roman crime.
Lindsey Davis, the queen of Roman crime.
Image: Mark Harrison

A Comedy of Terrors ★★★★★
Lindsey Davis
Hodder & Stoughton, R270

It’s no accident that British historical novelist Lindsey Davis was once dubbed the queen of the humorous crime romp. Along with countless awards for her best-selling crime series set in Ancient Rome — including the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger award for a crime-writing career of sustained excellence — Davis also garnered a Sherlock Award for the best comic detective for her fictional Roman private informer, Marcus Didius Falco, who features in 20 novels. Spend even a few moments talking to Davis, who is now winning accolades for a spin-off series featuring Falco’s adopted private informer daughter, Flavia Albia, and you’ll get a glimpse of that wickedly dry humour that laces her hugely popular novels. She is quick, too, to say of them that “they are good fun and they will cheer you up”.                                        

There’s no better proof of that than her book sales, which have remained steady for many years, but have ticked upwards during lockdown. Yet Davis’s intricately plotted mysteries are equally beloved for transporting you into the grist of the daily life and norms of the various social layers of Ancient Rome, all the while effortlessly unspooling the secrets of its dark underbelly. Rather like A Comedy of Terrors, the ninth novel in her Flavia Albia series and her 34th book to date. Noisy children, nosy relatives, squalor and wealth, legal and social norms, fashion and food — and food poisoning — as well as dead bodies clutter this brilliantly conceived novel as Flavia deals with the stress and complexities of her newly married life during the riotous, drunken mayhem of the Roman festival of Saturnalia in 89AD.

by Lindsey Davis.
A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis.
Image: Supplied

Narrated by Flavia, whose dry, rather acerbic humour alone makes this novel “a tonic and a joy to read,” as Britain’s Observer newspaper described it. Add in a dead street pedlar, impolite slaves, rancid nuts, Xero’s pies, a custody battle over a parrot, a decapitated sheep, a magistrate husband of only four months and A Comedy of Terrors lives up to its name. It’s impossible not to marvel at the way Davis slowly, cannily parlays the chaotic collision of Albia’s newfound domesticity with Saturnalia into the dark sinister tangle of murder, menace, extortion and racketeering that unfolds. A tangle that Albia, of course, feels compelled to investigate. “There was a lot of criminality which hasn’t been written about enough by Roman authors, but it clearly was there,” says Davis, who prides herself on historical accuracy, “and it is [part of] Italian life to this day.”

Davis revels in researching her novels. She has travelled extensively through the Levant, as well as Italy, Spain and Greece, even venturing down into the depths of Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, the ancient sewer. “I see no point in writing historical novels unless you get it right. It does matter, and people like it.” They like the understated way, too, that slaves and citizens from all parts of the Roman Empire feature in her novels. “The crowds would have been all colours, and in Comedy of Terrors I went out of my way to say that some of the characters were from parts of Africa. The good thing about the Romans is they were not colour prejudiced; they had snobberies of different kinds. And they did have African emperors. Septimius Severus is the first one, but after the time I’ve written about.”

Pressed further on why her books have such a devoted readership, she says: “They do like the humour and they do like having a crime mystery. But one of the main things they like is the Falco family life — the huge interconnected group of people — and following them. It is like a kind of Roman soap opera to them. And that I had not anticipated. When I started I made Falco have a big family simply because I was making him different from the Philip Marlowe loner type detective who has no family, friends or connections. Falco being Italian, I thought, ‘Well, he’d better have a big Italian family who get under his feet.’  Then, once I’d mentioned them, I had to fill them in and then they took over almost. I think there are some people who would read the books even if they didn’t have a crime story.”

She also didn’t anticipate the backlash when she turned to writing the Flavia Albia series after her partner’s death and a change in publisher left her feeling the need to write something different. “There was huge resistance. Some readers actually said, ‘We’re not going to read those. We want Falco,'” recalls Davis, “though they are now reading them and some are saying they like her more.” A Briton orphaned during the Boudican rebellion and adopted as a child, Flavia Albia is not only a woman but an outsider, says Davis, “so she can view how Roman society is organised in a way that Falco couldn’t”. Having now examined every conceivable aspect of Roman society through the eyes of both protagonists for more than 30 years, Davis insists that “at the back of what I’m doing as a novelist of that period is saying that human nature, with all its flaws, doesn’t change”. — @BronSibree

 

by Jérôme Carcopino
Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jérôme Carcopino
Image: Supplied

Lindsey Davis on books that have influenced her

Daily Life In Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire by Jérôme Carcopino. I have mixed views about it, but that gave me the image of Rome being absolutely crowded with stuff and with people and things they had imported. It is about 100 years old, I think, and it’s still in print because his method is to actually use things from Latin literature. So everything he cites comes from the poets, especially people like Martial and Juvenal, and I use them myself a lot. So it will never go out of date because that’s how it was. But I’ve got mixed views about it because I did find out after I’d used it for some years that he was suspected of being a Nazi sympathiser and so there’s now this terrible dark shadow over Jérôme Carcopino. And that is one of my things about writers — would you like their books if you knew they were, say, a wife-beater? Would you like the books as much, or would you feel cheated if you found that out? I don’t know the answer.

by Suetonius
The 12 Ceasars by Suetonius
Image: Supplied

 

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. I have to mention this because the last three of his Caesars are Vespasian and his two sons, and they’re very good pen portraits of them as characters. So I’ve used the earlier Caesars because the Julio-Claudian bit of history — the stuff we know from Robert Graves’s I, Claudius — features strongly as the recent past even in Falco and Albia’s time. When I wanted a subject to write about that nobody else was doing — I thought, ‘Nobody’s writing about the Romans. I’ll see if I can.' And then I found my way to Suetonius, and he had a very brief mention of Vespasian and Antonia Cainus (a former slave and Vespasian’s mistress). It’s only half a sentence. But there was just enough there to attract a would-be romantic novelist, which is probably what I am at heart, and I wrote a book about them, Course of Honour, but I was told it wasn’t publishable and it wasn’t published for 10 years. So after that failed I then thought I’d use the research for Falco. Never waste research. And it all came from there. But the picture of Vespasian in particular in The Twelve Caesars as this wonderful self-deprecating, very, very efficient, and I think, highly likable man — no-nonsense, middle-class, decent — is absolutely key to the Falco books and to my understanding of Rome as well. I was once interviewed in the British Museum by Mary Beard. So, Mary Beard has got me by a statue of Vespasian and she’s getting me to say why he’s such a good emperor and in the end, because I was talking about my novel The Course of Honour, which is really about his love affair, I said, “Obviously, Mary, he was very good in bed,” and she collapsed. She could not continue the interview. And I’m very proud of that. I still think I’m right. I still think he was probably very good in bed. But we’d never know really, because he wasn’t a man who would talk about it.”

by Rosemary Sutcliff.
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Image: Supplied

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. I came across that when I was at my primary school. I was eight and I had chickenpox, and my mum, despairing of me being wretched and itchy, came in one day with the radio — in those days, you only had one in your house and you had to carry it about if people were in different rooms — and she said, “There’s this serial on, you might like it.” And it was The Eagle of the Ninth done as a radio drama with Marius Goring Aquila, and so that was my very first real introduction to the Roman world. He’s a soldier in Roman Britain whose father and part of his legion had died in mysterious circumstances somewhere up north. So the hero goes to find what happened to them and he does find the eagle standard, and he finds out what had happened. It’s a wonderful adventure, that particular book. So then I became a keen Rosemary Sutcliff fan. The other thing she did for me, which isn’t about the Romans, was that she had written two books which were set in the English Civil War, so she introduced me to that, which is really my passion, the English Civil War.

by Raymond Chandler.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.
Image: Supplied

 

My interest in the crime genre comes from listening to detective novels on radio as well as reading them — we didn’t have a TV in our house until I was well into my teens. And for me probably the closest to what I wrote would be something like Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. You have this idea of a detective who is, in some ways, fighting his clients who take him on and then try to get rid of him. That’s a trope that often occurs in mystery books and I’ve used it quite a few times. If not in almost every book, Falco or Albia’s client will either die on them or will say, ‘No. That’s it, you’re finished’ and then they [Falco or Albia] take up the idea that wrong has been done and pursue it regardless, thereby not earning many fees of course. So the idea of the investigator who is impoverished and struggling comes out of it. Sometimes Philip Marlowe will be fighting the whole establishment, and that’s another idea that I have taken up and used quite often.

Complied by Eric Partridge
A Dictionary of the Underworld Complied by Eric Partridge
Image: Supplied

I care about things like language and vocabulary because I’m trying to portray a society we have to imagine, so I use all sorts of vocabulary. So I have to use a dictionary. I use the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which is in two volumes, and this is because I am passionate about how you write. Really, the use of words is crucial to me. But also I use metaphor and simile quite a lot and I use things like long and short sentences very consciously. So the other one is Roget’s Thesaurus which I used to use, but now of course you go online and up come all sorts of strange things, but I still think Roget is better. For swear words I have a third book I often use which is A Dictionary of the Underworld. I get sort of 18th-century strange words from that, and some of the swear words, I invent my own version — things like Titan’s turds — partly so that I don’t have to use modern swear words, which sound wrong.


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