As I settle down to read Nemesis, the latest escapade of Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis’ quirky Roman detective, I remembered why I was attracted to the very first one, The Silver Pigs, and the other eighteen titles in the series.
Living in Vespasian’s reign (69-79AD), the protagonist is irreverent, clings to his plebian Aventine origins but is pragmatic about the casual brutality of his environment. Severed hands, a brother-in-law torn apart in the arena, his own near extinction are all there. But so are wit, disregard for his betters and a sense of doing the right thing, whether legal or not. He makes mistakes, gets beaten up and loses cases and clients, but we root for him when he is at his most vulnerable and human.
Davis’ stories not only show us Falco’s daily life in the centre of the known world, his friends, his love, his dysfunctional family and the odd emperor or two, but give us terrific who and whydunnits.
You won’t find the Falco books amongst historical fiction in bookshops but in the crime and thrillers section where, despite the rich and authentic historical detail, they firmly belong.
At the other end of the time spectrum, in a 2057 version of New York, J D Robbs’s Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the NYPSD heads up a tough homicide squad. While the settings and social mores are vastly different from those in the Falco stories, people are still people and crime continues while the flawed, cynical detectives drive themselves to solve their cases against time demands, corruption and the bad guys.
I’m not comparing myself to the incomparable Lindsey Davis or J D Robb – I wouldn’t be so cheeky. But if they can set their stories in a historic context but still have their books stacked in the “Crime and Thrillers” section, then I’m encouraged to think my stories with an alternative history setting could succeed as thrillers in their own right.