In 1989, Lindsey Davis introduced the world to Roman private detective (and aspiring poet) Marcus Didius Falco. Twenty-one years, numerous awards and swathes of enamoured readers later, the twentieth Falco novel, Nemesis, has just hit bookshop shelves, alongside a companion to the series. Structo talked to Davis about civil servants, the importance of historical accuracy in fiction and the reason film-makers might want her dead.
After leaving Oxford with a degree in English, you joined the Civil Service for 13 years. Were you writing much during this period?
No. Only in my final year did I write a romantic novel to cheer myself up. It was shortlisted for the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize, which encouraged me in all ways.
Did you leave the Service with the deliberate aim of becoming a full-time writer?
No. I left because I was unhappy. I thought you had to have ‘proper’ work – as indeed many writers do.
Did Falco’s distaste of bureaucrats stem from your time there?
His knowledge is probably based on my own. I would like to say that he does not entirely disapprove of bureaucrats. His distaste is for inefficiency. In The Silver Pigs I particularly created Flavius Hilaris, who stands for the best kind of civil servant and of whom Falco soon approves very highly.
One of the pleasures of reading the books is that, as an author, you carry your knowledge very lightly. For instance we find out that Rome had horribly unstable multishopy blocks of flats, but this detail comes as a necessary feature of the action, rather than as a bit of information that says ‘I know this’. Just how accurate is the history that Falco finds himself intertwined with?
I hope it’s always accurate. I see no point in writing historical novels unless you try to make them true to what we know. Of course sometimes we don’t know things – and we can never be sure how accurate our perception is.
Do you have any views on the dramatisation or alteration of history in fiction? Would you say there is a duty on the part of the author or filmmaker to make it clear that events have been changed to improve the pacing of a narrative, for example?
I have a very strong ethos that history (as far as we know it) should not be altered. An author’s job is to make their story match what really happened – or to go away and write fantasy. Would it be acceptable to write a modern book or film in which Blair did not attack Saddam Hussein because it affected the pace of some mimsy author’s narrative? I think not!
Any plans to use your knowledge to write non-fiction, i.e. Roman history?
Not at present, apart from the occasional very short ‘feature’ article.
Do you find physical research useful? Have you travelled to many of the same places as Falco and Helena?
I have spent a great deal of time in Rome and have generally made brief visits to places my characters visit. Of course it helps. Nothing can beat seeing things for yourself to give you the atmosphere and inspire good ideas. However, I bet nobody can really tell where I have been and where I have ‘done it from books’!
There are some very strong women in Falco’s life. Does this echo the structure of Roman society and the legal status of women at the time?
Women had no legal status, so it can’t echo that. It is true to what I know of how women were perceived (i.e. scary) and how they are portrayed on, for example, tombstones, and also to what I have observed in their descendants. Italian women are still supposed to live in a patriarchal society – if you follow what men say.
You left the world of the Romans, at least temporarily, to write Rebels and Traitors. Was that a conscious break from your previous writing?
No, the Romans are a conscious break from my interest in the seventeenth century – but a professional with bills to pay has to go where the market is. I had always wanted to write about the Civil War. The change was extremely refreshing and I expect to find other non-Roman subjects.
What can you tell us about the companion book?
This has been requested by readers for a long time. It’s not the kind of lexicon-style companion which attempts to catalogue minutiae, but it discusses questions I have regularly been asked about the series. There is more detailed autobiographical detail than I have ever given before, some of which may surprise people, and some sparky discussion writing and research (I’ve had a lot of very silly approaches from would-be historical novelists and my views are pretty stern). There are a hundred illustrations, many of them from my own photographic archives, and numerous quotations from authors ancient and modern.
What is it about Falco that has prompted such an enduring following?
He’s honest, he’s fun, and he has an attractive female partner.
How do you feel about having your books narrated as audio books, or serialised on the radio?
Every new version is welcome so long as it is true to my intentions. The audiobooks I license are always unabridged so that’s no problem – though people do have their own idea of what Falco should sound like and they must accept that we can’t always match that. The radio dramas are necessarily truncated and tend to concentrate on plot rather than Falco musing with us. But people love them, so we are clearly doing it right.
Do you think that we will ever see Marcus Didius Falco on the big screen?
Because I am strict about how the books can be used, I suspect film makers are just waiting around, hoping I will die and get out of their hair! The rights are available to all my books, I can say no more.
And finally, can you recommend an underrated book?
I think Georgette Heyer’s Royal Escape, about the dangerous adventures of the Prince of Wales (Charles II) after the Royalists lost the Battle of Worcester, deserves to be better known. It is an exemplary use of fascinating background material, but of course also a gripping tale, with excellent characterisation and a real period feel – not, of course, the period for which she is generally known.