M Didius Falco is the hero of Lindsey Davis' long-running series of detective novels set in the ancient Roman Empire. First encountered in The Silver Pigs, he's an 'informer' - a private eye, in other words. He narrates his own adventures in a style which begins as something of a pastiche of the American gumshoe genre, but develops into a distinctive form all its own as the first book progresses. It's not just in the narrative style that Falco's stereotypical sleuth image unravels. Most private detectives don't have a domineering Italian mother, or anything resembling a detailed history.

Falco is a former solider, with a good classical education that's a little above his working-class station. Brought up on the Aventine Hill, one of the less classy districts of the great City, he feels out of place beside some of those he investigates, and early on in the series he has the inconvenience of his position driven painfuly home to him. In the course of the series we learn more about Falco's ancestry: his mother's family are market gardeners, and his father's family - whom we never meet - are city traders. Both these elements, like the classical education, prove very useful to a man who's paid to provide information.

Falco lives to an extent in the shadow of his elder brother, M Didius Festus, who died in the Judaean War, some time before the first book begins. Festus is viewed by all and sundry as the great impeccable war hero, and Falco knows he'll never achieve the same kind of respect by staying alive that his brother gained by getting killed. Falco also knows that there was another side to his brother, which emerges in Poseidon's Gold: Festus was a bit of a rascal, to put it mildly. Not that this should be any surprise. Falco's father, estranged from his mother, is an antiques dealer and auctioneer, and clearly the source of Festus' roguish traits - and Falco's, of course. There is also a gaggle of Didius sisters, whose involvements also feature in the series.

But the principal figure in Falco's life is introduced in the first book, and it really would be spoiling the fun of that volume to go into any kind of detail here. If you want to pick up hints, some of my reviews of later volumes in the series inevitably give things away.

The Falco books to date (June 2002):

Falco won the 1999 Sherlock Award for 'best comic detective'.

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