Review: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

 

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Fergus Hume

Kemp and Boyce, 1886

A drunk gets into a hansom cab and leaves dead, killed by chloroform. A newcomer to town, nobody had reason to mourn him, especially his rival in love. However, his death proves to have more motives behind it than first seem possible.

The first thing that grabs you is the blurb which, like many back covers, promises a ‘mystery that will hold you, the reader, from page one right through to the end’.  And, as part detective story, part murder-procedural with revelations continuing right up to the final chapter, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab certainly delivers. The pity is that the sentence before this asks ‘How could a person travelling on his own in the back of a cab been chloroformed to death?’, which promises an intriguing locked-room mystery.

A locked-room mystery that holds you, the reader, right up until…the second page, where it is revealed that somebody got into the cab with him. Just to make things that little bit clearer, he does this with the full knowledge and agreement of the cab’s driver (who later reports the murder). Twenty-eight pages later, (in a two-hundred and thirty-nine page novel!), we find out that this man did not only know the victim, but was the victim’s arch rival. John Dickson Carr, this ain’t.

The faults of the back cover aside, this is actually a very good murder-procedural, even if it does seem to shift genres throughout. For the first couple of pages, this seems a detective story: we have the (not-so) mysterious murder in the back of a moving hansom cab at the dead of night then we meet our detective, but this is done in a refreshingly novel way. For information about the crime, we cut from newspaper report to the inquest to the newspaper again, by which time Hume has neatly imparted all initial clues / alibis etc, then switch pace completely, cutting to detective Mr Gorby.

‘Hang it,’ he said, thoughtfully stropping his razor, ‘a thing with an end must have a start, and if I don’t get the start how am I to get to the end?’

In every detail in his introduction, he’s the typical Golden Age detective: initiative and eccentricity. When we initially meet him, he’s expositioning happily about the case. Since he’s a conscientious and honest policeman, however, he’s doing so to his only trusted confidante: his shaving mirror. Within three pages, he’s off discovering unusual pockets in dress waistcoats, finding landladies and, like everyone else in 19th to early 20th century detective novels, perusing the personal columns in the local newspaper.

However, the role of Main Character quickly shifts away from charming Mr Gorby to the accused, Brian Moreland and his amore, beautiful debutante Madge Frettlby. The story shifts from the crime itself to the crime’s effects, especially on Young Love: it’s rather as if Poirot had appeared at the beginning of The Mysterious Affair At Styles, then retired meekly to the background to let everyone else sort out their domestic affairs on the main stage.  But the murder-procedural format has its charms and, as always in good Golden Age novels, the little vignettes of humanity seen in bit-part characters are enjoyable. Unlike other novels set in the world of millionaires and debutantes, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is not afraid to dip its toes into the murky waters of the Melbourne underclass. The passages set among the alcoholic, syphilitic victims of this glittering world are among the best in the book, and the two worlds intertwine nicely in a way that Christie would balk at. Even if one of the characters bears the slightly improbably self-critical name of ‘Mother Guttersnipe’.

The revelations keep coming, right up until the end, though the story has the same problem that The Moving Toyshop suffered from: when the crime is sold as a ‘how?’ question, then the ‘how’ question is solved very quickly, the reader becomes less interested in the who and the why. But this isn’t a detective novel but a novel about crime, and it’s almost worth buying for the glimpses into turn-of-the-century Melbourne society. Think Law And Order set in 19th century Australia. It’s a study in crime, and the way it affects the characters associated with it. The main characters pale a bit towards the end, but it keeps you reading and, for the most part, interested. Well worth a look.

 

Post scriptum

One of the 100 best crime stories of all time’  The Sunday Times

‘Fergus Hume…went on to write a further 140 novels, but none of them achieved any real success at all.’  The back cover

The one thing, sadly, that immediately grabs you about this book is the wordlessly depressing fate of its author (and the best possible counter-argument to the idea previously expounded here). We are told (by Professor Barrie Haynes of Toronto, recounted in the introduction by H. R. F. Keating) that about twenty of these are eminently readable, which somehow makes the pathos worse. (Neither Haynes nor Keating mention which twenty).  The Mystery of a Hansom Cab remains a curiosity today for this reason: the author who struck lucky once, but never again.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Commentary , or What This *Doesn’t* Say About Rowling Or The Publishing Industry

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‘Volume of production is damned important in writing [as] if you produce enough stuff regularly you’re going to wear down opposition sooner or later.’

Helen McCloy, Two-Thirds of a Ghost

The news that the millionaire, best-selling author J. K. Rowling had had a book (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) disappear without trace after being rejected by several publishers has caused quite a stir, during these long summer months of slow news. Talent disappearing so completely under the radar demands an explanation, and so far people seem to have come up with two: that Rowling lacks talent, or that the publishing industry is incapable of recognising it. And both these impressions are wrong.

Let’s start with the former. Whatever you may think of Rowling’s prose style, it’s undeniable that she’s a good and engaging writer. The Casual Vacancy proved this even for those cynics that thought the appeal of Harry Potter was not the plot but the world it was set in. And the reviews for The Cuckoo’s Calling seem to bear this out: as well as the now oft-quoted praise from Val McDermid and Mark Billingham, the general consensus was that the book was good. Note the reaction from Kate Mills, who turned down the book on behalf of Orion: ‘perfectly decent, but quiet…it didn’t stand out’. So, it does seem surprising that something so well-reviewed by such an accomplished author sold under 2,000 copies without any further notice. Presumably, such a work should be an immediate success, and that it wasn’t does seem to demand an explanation. But, when we compare it to the biggest names in detective fiction and their notable characteristics, perhaps it doesn’t seem like such an anomaly after all.

A Selection of Detective Novelists And Their Work

  • Margery Allingham (36 novels and short-story collections)
  • Andrea Camelleri (12 novels featuring Montalbano)
  • Raymond Chandler (eight novels, 23 short stories)
  • G K Chesterton (51 Father Brown stories)
  • Agatha Christie (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Wilkie Collins (two works of debatable detective fiction, a couple of short stories)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes: four novels, 56 stories)
  • Edmund Crispin (eleven novels and short story collections)
  • Lindsey Davis (20 Falco novels)
  • Micheal Dibdin (11 Zen novels)
  • John Dickson Carr (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Dashiell Hammett (five novels, 19 short stories)
  • Micheal Innes (50 novels and short story collections under his penname alone)
  • P D James (19 novels), Ngaio Marsh (36 novels, 12 short stories)
  • Edgar Allen Poe (three Auguste Dupin stories)
  • Geoges Simeonen (over 200 novels and short story collections)
  • Ruth Rendell (60 novels and short story collections)

The astounding thing here, in so many cases, is volume*. The sheer number of works by most of the greats exceed anything you’d find in literary fiction or even fantasy: only science fiction, children’s fiction or romance novels would have a chance of coming close. The exceptions to this rule (Poe, Collins, Doyle) are intruiging in their own right: the ones with the relatively low counts are well-known because they wrote the books that defined the genre of detective fiction, and even the creator of Harry Potter can’t compete with that. Those with the large number of short stories, for the most part, began with serialisations, a painstaking but through way to crawl into the public eye. Nowadays, an author writing just one detective novel and becoming successful is very much a rarity: if you can think of an example, please leave it in the comments, because there are barely any.
For the rest, when you think of commercially successful detective authors, you don’t think of a single novel but their whole, massive, oeuvre of work – this is why Christie in particular is so easy to parody. And, despite their success, very few of the writers above, especially the ones we now think of as the most ingenious / famous, were immediately ‘spotted’ in the way people seem to assume that Rowling should have been.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles had similar reviews and similar speed in publication, yet Christie didn’t hit the big time until The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, six books and years later. Ruth Rendell was first published on her third attempt, with her novel bought for £75. The reason first editions of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs (actually her second novel) go for thousands is because the original print run was somewhere between 2,000 and 2, 500 copies. Nor did this immediately catapult her to fame: the reason why a first edition of A Dying Light in Corduba can go for hundreds. Rowling herself didn’t hit the big time immediately even after The Philosopher’s Stone was published. The number of authors who have made the jump from good reviews to good sales are very small indeed, and it takes graft. Yes, Rowling as an experienced writer is presumably more accomplished than Davies or Christie were then. But her name was unknown and so it genuinely isn’t surprising that, though those who read it liked it, word-of-mouth hadn’t had time to spread.

Because for a novel simply to be good  is not enough: success comes as much with quantity as it does with quality. The most prolific author on the list, Georges Simeonen, creater of Maigret, is perhaps the least critically acclaimed of all. The book flying off the shelves now is exactly the same as the one that Kate Mills found uninteresting. But the most important thing to note is that neither she nor Val McDermid were wrong. McDermid saw potential while Mills simply didn’t see an immediately marketable success. They were both entirely correct.

You can argue that, as the novel was critically acclaimed by those as much in the know as McDermid and Billingham  that Little, Brown should have advertised its find. But then, writing isn’t really all that difficult: sufficiently advertised, most people could (probably) make a decent amount of sales, just not enough to make it worth the while of the publishers. If a writer is good, or if a bad writer perseveres, they will probably eventually succeed. The one great pity is that Galbraith didn’t remain undercover for long enough to make a name on his own. The one consolation is that the book, unlike The Casual Vacancy, was therefore reviewed on its own terms rather than being continually judged against Harry Potter.
As for the comments saying that this proves that Rowling is mediocre, lacking enough talent to stand up to anonymous scrutiny, or that the publishing industry is so blind it can’t or won’t recognise and market talent when it sees it…they say far more about the inadequacies of the supposedly critical public than about anyone else.

*Aside from the (hopefully) irrelevant observation that that, if you want a career in detective fiction, it helps to have a name beginning with ‘c’.

(Out)Dating the Golden Age

‘Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?’

Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye

Everyone knows what to think of when they think of the Golden Age. The Country House mystery, where beautiful socialites drop poison in cocktail glasses then play a round of croquet, and as a body is found in a locked room all are baffled until the arrival of a learned, middle aged man quoting Shakespeare and dressed in the latest of Savile Row fashions. And everyone knows that the Golden Age is long gone, outdated even at the time, and anyone sensible should lay down their copy of Poirot and pick up something gritty, preferably set in Glasgow, instead.

The first thing to notice is that the Golden Age is mythical. The Golden Age is firmly set after World War One, from which Poirot and Wimsey and England all bear the scars, but it is very rare to find any kind of reference to the Second World War, the one that completely and utterly destroyed the essence of the golden age lifestyle. The great houses were requisitioned, the socialites became farm girls. Yet so many of the novels set in the stereotypical Golden Age transpire, when you study the publication dates, to have been both written and distributed after World War Two. A contradiction?

And it is now that we have to define the Golden Age, and in doing so you realise quite how few of its supposed examples actually follow the pattern set above. We all know, deep down, that that is what the Golden Age is, just as we know that Sherlock Holmes wears a deerstalker and cries ‘Come, Watson, the game is afoot!’. But of course he doesn’t, just as almost all of the Golden Age stories don’t fit the pattern stated above: because the setting of the Golden Age is nothing more than a means to an end.

The Golden Age, like the England it represents, is not a place or a time but a belief. In superficialities, it’s a world of butlers and maids and Cockneys, not because it’s inherently class-driven but because it’s easier when the characters can devote their lives to murder, love and intrigue without having to worry about the cooking or cleaning – note that, even the detectives we think of as the epitome of upper class, Wimsey and Poirot, are not averse to dipping their toes into the world of the lower or middle classes. The Golden Age is monochrome and everyone is white: not because the authors are racist (and anyone who thinks so should note the way bit-part characters are treated in A Caribbean Mystery and Unnatural Death) but because the Golden Age is a world where social troubles and the problems of race relations don’t exist. The Golden Age is interested in problems, interested in the way people relate to each other and these are timeless. The Golden Age is not interested in ephemeral politics because it has no reason to be, and there is no sense of time or place because the characters and stories it depicts are eternal.

This is why the ‘golden age’ novels take place in mythical times in mythical places: because they tell timeless stories of timeless characters, and it’s precisely because the setting of the Golden Age can’t intrude on this that the Golden Age setting was chosen. You could drop any of the characters in Christie (or, for that matter, Jeeves and Wooster) into any setting, anywhere, and their stories would still work: the country house is used because it provides few distractions.

And this is why, ultimately, any attempts to ‘modernise’ the Golden Age or ‘make it more relevant’ are doomed, and why those who claim that the Golden Age is outdated and/or implicitly classist / racist / sexist are missing the point entirely. The great thing about the Golden Age is that it preaches the ultimate democracy: that all people deep down are the same.

Review: The Moving Toyshop

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The Moving Toyshop

Edmund Crispin

Victor Gollancz, 1946

The Moving Toyshop has one of the most enjoyable, intriguing and beautifully clever opening chapters imaginable. Our hero, bored poet Richard Cadogan (enough of an everyman to be relatable and unconventional enough to be interesting) gets bored enough for a holiday, drunk as a result and, lost in Oxford at the dead of night, he stumbles across a dead body in a toyshop that has mysteriously vanished when he returns the next morning. For the experienced Golden Age connoisseur, something about this seems vaguely familiar and eventually all becomes clear. If The Moving Toyshop were a stick of rock (and Crispin in any other form would taste as sweet…) it would have the letters G. K. C. running through it. It has the same imagination, the same erudition, the same sense of the fantastical in the everyday (truly, perhaps, what magical realism ought to mean). But Crispin has both the same strengths and the same failings. Featuring the quintessential Oxford don detective Gervase Fen with a poet as the everyman and the title taken from The Rape of the Lock the book was always going to be impressive, with the imagination of Chesterton and the intellectual nous of Lady Dorothy about it. Unfortunately, The Moving Toyshop lacks one essential thing: a plot.

Because this is not a detective story, nor should it ultimately be judged as one. Oddly, in character it’s far closer to the modern-day thrillers that this site normally deplores. The force of the plot is not the puzzle, which is dispensed with in a paragraph halfway through the book. The murderer is never hidden, the only reason for the murder is money and there is no justification for the crimes beyond capital-E Evil. What it is, instead, is a perfectly enjoyable romp around Golden Age Oxford in the company of Cadogan, Fen, and a D.H. Lawrence-quoting truck driver.

There are many moments of hilarity, some of them intentional:

 ‘When I was an undergraduate I made love to a girl in here…I remember I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t put much zest into the business. I don’t suppose she enjoyed it especially, poor thing.’

But then, the novel was first published in 1946, and the above lines are so blatant that one can only suspect Crispin was in on it and, when the author is laughing at their own jokes so hard, it’s often funnier for them than it is for the reader. And that sums up the one, overwhelming problem: self-indulgence. So, when we get to the main character declaiming, at the climax, ‘He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, and rouse him in the name of Crispin’ we’re less than  impressed.

This is not to say that the various asides aren’t funny: they are, often hilariously so. The main characters play ‘unreadable books’ in their spare time; hired thugs chasing Our Heroes boom out ‘and thine is the kingdom’ at the wrong moment in Chapel; Fen continues a telephone debate about subtleties in Measure for Measure at the most inopportune moments possible; on being told that a character has read all the books in his mobile library, Cadogan quips that he’s “getting too big for his Boots”.

And this is what the novel is: a very amusing selection of scenes, quips and commentaries from Edmund Crispin. We get lines like this, from a lorry driver:

“‘We’ve lost touch with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious, source of life.’ Not, he added confidentially, ‘that I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman.’”

Or exchanges such as:

“‘So you see, it’s by such means that the moneyed classes, gambling on the Stock Exchange, ruin millions of poor investors.’

‘But surely the poor investors were gambling on the Stock Exchange too.’

‘Oh, no, that’s quite different…’”

And every observation is quick to the bone, (almost)every joke is funny. But that alone isn’t enough to carry the endless pages of characters running aimlessly round and round and round Oxford again and again and again.

The novel contains precisely one character, eccentric detective (aren’t they all…) Gervase Fen. The viewpoint characters / straight men / gay young amateurs dancing their way through their cases are boring and forgettable in the extreme. The murderer’s motives are the most boring imaginable: Evil (with a capital E), mixed in with old fashioned Love of Money. The detective story is secondary to the characters and the setting, which makes for a very bad detective story. The most fascinating aspect, that of the toyshop itself, is dealt with mundanely within a paragraph. We spend the rest of the story in a thriller, as we follow our heroes in a life-or-death chase around Oxford, a far too genteel setting to feel any sense of peril, for reasons which…get gradually more and more confused. Like Chesterton, the reader leaves with the feeling that the author had one brilliant idea (the toyshop), perhaps even one brilliant scene, but then wanted to spend the rest of the time doing what he pleased. In Chesterton, this is philosophical musings. In Crispin, this is wandering around Oxford on a sunny afternoon.

And it’s a reasonably diverting ride. But nothing more.

Review: Two-Thirds of a Ghost

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Two Thirds of a Ghost

Helen McCloy

Penguin Crime, 1957

Amos Cottle, critically acclaimed and world famous author, dies at a dinner party. Present are his publisher, agent, friendly critic, unfriendly critic, ex-wife, mistress and a variety of unwelcome guests. One of these people became a murderer that night, but in discovering who and why psychologist-cum-detective Basil Willing finds that the case is far more complicated than it seems…

Like the best of the Golden Age detectives Basil Willing, “psychologist-cum-detective”, is completely and utterly dull, characterless, and anodyne. Which, since he comes in a first-class Golden Age novel, is all to the good, as the plot and characters that unfurl around him are more than enough on their own.

One of the best features of Helen McCloy is that she recognises the old adage: everyone is interesting, only some are more interesting than others. Our first introduction is to the charming housewife Meg Vesey who, in the hands of lesser authors, would have been a perfectly agreeable companion to guide us gently throughout the rest of the novel. Because McCloy is not a ‘lesser author’, she is quickly dropped in favour of a series of some of the most unpleasant (and gloriously familiar) archetypes imaginable: the supremely bitchy, out-of-work ex-wife of Amos; the bitter, frustrated and unfaithful current wife of Amos’ publisher, the gauche dinner party guest and her pretentious son. Either these are archetypes we recognise from fiction and believe exist or, even better, have something that we recognise in others or ourselves, the essence of good character writing.

In fiction, the nasty are always far more interesting than the nice, but McCloy pulls off the impressive balancing act of ensuring that our sympathies always lie with the good while, at the same time, the reader both understands and pities the bad. We dislike but, because McCloy gives us a look into the heads of even the most unpleasant characters, we never hate. The eventual culprit is unmasked: it’s one of the sub-par solutions where the murderer seems to have been chosen at random from a group of likely suspects, but the journey there was so bizarre and enjoyable that somehow this didn’t matter.

It’s a novel that’s funny on first look and even better on re-reading, with perhaps the most hilarious scene leading up to a death in all fiction. This is not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws. Like many Golden Age novels, it spends a long time setting up for a short period of excitement, which is followed by a lot of meandering and then a couple of explanatory speeches. But, unlike many Golden Age novels, the characters are a genuine delight to spend time with and, unlike many authors everywhere, here McCloy has something both interesting and witty to say on the state of the publishing industry, and it’s an unalloyed pleasure to read her bitching.

It would be a mistake to read Two Thirds of a Ghost just as a detective story when so much of it is a satire on publishing that, sadly, is as cutting today as it presumably was in 1957. Yes, the satire is heavy-handed at times –

“‘What is it?’
‘Short story. Hard-hitting, well written, fascinating background material, vivid characters.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
Gus groaned aloud. ‘It has a plot’”

– but then it’s just so enjoyable that somehow this doesn’t seem to matter. This may not be to everyone’s taste and if it isn’t the book is a diatribe and the plot absurd. A mystery that satisfyingly unfurls, and some of the greatest quotes on publishing known to mankind. Buy it for the characters, the plot, the humour, the lines, the depiction of 1950s book publishing and academia, or for the way the novel questions how much we forgive for genius, how much we make valuations according to convention and how much we prize power and assets in love, though none of these in the way you’d expect. Two Thirds of a Ghost is a matter of taste, but it’s a deeply satisfying cynicism.

Review: The Soft Talkers

 

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The Soft Talkers

Margaret Millar

Penguin Crime, 1957

Detective novels where the detective element only appears in the last chapter have a tendency to be both bad and irritating, and The Soft Talkers is no exception. The reader is left with the impression that the author really wished to write a character study, and the result would undoubtedly be a fine (if a little dull) piece of modern literature, and the pseudo-literary title reflects this (the original American edition was The Air That Kills, which makes even less sense). But detective fiction sold whilst novel-length character studies languished unpublished, and thus we get messes like this. (See also Julian Symon’s The Kentish Manor Murders which manages to be a decent-ish thriller instead; and Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde, to which I won’t give the privilege of a review.) There’s nothing quite like reading a book, knowing everything there is to know about a select group of characters, but by the end just thinking…why?

This is made baffling by the fact that the author was once President of the Mystery Writers of America and, according to the back-cover blurb, “is generally regarded as the heiress-apparent to Agatha Christie”. But then even Dame Agatha inflicted the world with Endless Night and, at the warning “praise” of ‘the final chapter packs a knock-out punch’ (Daily Telegraph, and was that really the best quote they could find?) it would perhaps have been best to have put the book down and moved on to something else. Perhaps the purpose is to prove that the writer can write, and maybe it sometimes succeeds in doing so. But better authors can do both a solid plot and auteur writing at the same time, and when an author thinks only one is possible it’s simply disrespectful to the reader. And if a reader doesn’t have the author’s respect, the author doesn’t deserve the reader. It’s a brilliant work of something, but it’s not a detective novel.

And it’s the attempt to be both that makes The Soft Talkers not only a failure, but a baffling one. The plot is entirely character driven – no messing around with alibis, evidence or fingerprints – and written differently might have been an entirely character-driven success in the manner of Cards on The Table. And it’s a pity, because both the characters and the writing are so sharp they hurt. By the end of the first page we get the line

‘Esther knew where he was going, but she was the kind of woman who liked to ask questions to which she already knew the answers. It gave her a sense of security.’

and we know that this is a book where character counts. The portrayals of the middle-aged central suspects are so pathetic (in the traditional sense) that they’re almost painful. The vignettes of those involved in the murder: the Mennonite schoolgirl who wants to be an explorer, the widowed mother and her brash daughter, the spinster provincial teacher secretly eyeing up the investigating officer, the ex-wife who lives on bitterness and hypochondria, the parody of the investigative reporter who cons his way into a character’s house pretending to sell water softeners…only to be caught out when she asks to buy one. The detective figure, academic Ralph Turee, is enjoyable bland though his happy family life is significantly odd in a story where every other character is unremittingly nasty, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or both. The book would have made an extremely good murder-procedural. But unfortunately it tacks a mystery onto the end.

Some people may read it and think that it’s a work of brilliance, but for all its skill The Soft Talkers never quite plays fair. You can read it as a description of run-of-the-mill people coping with life and death and it’s reasonable. But it’s an imperfect detective novel because we only know it’s a detective novel because of the green cover of Penguin Crime, and when we don’t know the genre the reader can’t play along with the writer’s game. It’s a very imperfect character study because the ending completely invalidates everything that has gone before – it’d be a better novel if it had skipped out the last chapter, a better detective story if it were a good ninety pages thinner around the middle. For a good story, get the scissors.

Review: The Ides of April

 

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The Ides of April

Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99

Most golden-age mystery lovers will already be aware of Davies’ most famous creation, Ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco. Unlike most writers of historical fiction, Lindsey Davis gave us characters that are believable, an Ancient Rome that you’d want to live in and stories that, with minor alterations, could happen anytime, anywhere: the essence of character-driven plotting coupled with a breadth and depth of research that’ll take your breath away.  With Falco’s story told, Davis moves instead to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, your typical bright-spark sharp-talking tough-yet-damaged beauty just waiting for the right man to melt her heart. Vespasian’s Rome of hot days and sunlight has given way to the darkness of the Emperor Domitian, a darkness punctuated by occasional screams.

A serial killer stalks the streets, and for the honest (and not-so-honest) Roman maiden Albia is the only hope, supported by a varyingly-helpful supporting cast of city guards, family members (wisely, the lead cast of the Falco novels are fondly mentioned but never appear), love interests, doormen and bathhouse attendants. But, unlike in the Falco novels (which contained, on the page, the same supporting cast relayed above) Albia is alone. She lacks friends, her family don’t appear and, for a woman in a very brutal man’s work, the life of an informer is lonely and scary. And Albia is a lot less human than Falco was.

Even from the beginning Falco had a best friend, an ordinary supporting cast of an estranged father, interfering mother, irritating sisters and a brother he couldn’t quite live up to: a background the ordinary reader could identify with, coupled with a humour that never slipped. Albia’s background involves a dead husband, a vanishing lover, rape, life on the street, orphaned in a massacre as a baby, and is a woman in a man’s world. Falco’s background was a deliberate subversion of the clichés that Albia’s background embodies and something is lost as a result.  Albia lacks both the humour and the human element that made Falco so appealing, and the world she lives in is cold and brutal. Compare the first lines of The Silver Pigs:

‘When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes’

with the opening of The Ides of April

“Lucius Bassus was three years old when his mother took her eyes off him and he ran out of the house to play…he was knocked down and killed by a builder’s cart”

The distinction becomes clear: we’re not in Kansas anymore. The detective element, which is usually the justification for darkness in a plotline, is sound but never becomes sparkling, while the detective is obnoxious and almost relentlessly unlikeable.

And it takes a great deal of time to realise that this is not only a strength, but the entire point. Seen through the eyes of a woman, life in Ancient Rome is barbaric and unfriendly and, though the culprit is obvious and the final ending a twist rather than a revelation, the pleasure is entirely in the ride. Above all, The Ides of April offers something new. Albia is who she is because of her environment, and makes for a timely reminder that, with cosiness of the Falco novels is ripped away, Domitian’s Rome was not a nice place to be and ancient history at last reclaims its alien feel while keeping the timelessness of the characters. The later Falco novels (bar Nemesis) had become interchangeable, with Falco leaving behind a Rome we’d seen too many times before for an extended travelogue of tourist destinations, hampered by an ever-expanding family of supporting characters who were, by now, too established to be in any danger.

It’s a difficult trick, pulling off a new series in the same setting with a similar protagonist and Davis does it with aplomb. It’s easy to forget that the Falco series didn’t find its feet until the third or fourth book and The Ides of April is a very promising start to a series unlike anything we’ve seen before. Flavia Albia has some way to go as a character but what Ides shows, above all else, is the Lindsey Davis still has it, and that her Ancient Rome still has a lot more to give.