The Silver Pigs is the debut novel of British author Lindsey Davis, and introduces her popular detective, Marcus Didius Falco. The year is 70 AD, and something is rotten in the state of Rome. The story is told in the first person, from Falco's own point of view, and this has the twin effects of telling us a lot about our hero from his view of the world and reinforcing the book's tone. That tone is of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel transplanted to the Rome of the Emperor Vespasian. Our hero is a private eye, or informer, and the world he inhabits is furnished with the duplicitous blondes, grimy offices, corrupt officials and chummy policemen familiar to readers of, say, The Thin Man.

But (as explained in the introduction to the latest edition) Davis is not merely duplicating the gumshoe genre in a different setting. She overturns many of the stereotypes of the form, filling in areas of the protagonist's life usually intentionally left blank by the originators of the genre. Falco has a big, messy Italian family, a history which extends back before his time in the legions, and a decent education. Of course, these traits are very useful to the writer in exploring interesting aspects of Roman civilisation. A hero who knows Greek, and who knows a thing or two about antiques, will be a valuable guide for the reader if something historic and Hellenic should show up. But the history you'll learn through the book (and its many sequels) is never intrusive. The immediacy of the scenes described enables the reader to stop fretting about the detailed archaeological research which has enabled them.

Falco's first adventure is a tough case, which begins in the heart of Rome, and leads him to the edge of the Empire - Britain, a province he hoped he'd never see again after leaving the army. In the course of his investigations, he encounters dangerous senatorial families, the Emperor himself, and a certain rich divorcee...

I'm not about to reveal the plot of this wonderful book in any more detail, because I'm thoroughly opposed to spoilers. All I can say is that everyone I've so far recommended the series to has loved it. Amazon gives it a five-star rating - every reviewer has loved it. Begin here to get the maximum enjoyment from one of the best series of detective novels currently available. When you're done, proceed directly to Shadows in Bronze, which continues the plot.

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