LINDSEY DAVIS - 30 books on and going strong...

Written by Lindsey Davis

Some time in the late 1980’s, I wrote a book. The Silver Pigs was my last hope to avoid going back to a ‘real’ job. Using material I gathered while researching the Emperor Vespasian, it featured a world-weary ‘informer’, who merrily crossed genres like a 1940’s gumshoe in the mean streets of ancient Rome. It was AD69, just as Vespasian came to power. I knew very little about Rome, and had only just realised that cheery old cove built the Colosseum. At the time, I had never been to Rome. I don’t believe in ‘write what you know’.

I knew little about publishing either, but ignored idiots saying ‘there is no market for historicals’. I wanted to be a historical novelist, but I liked detective novels too and had a lot of fun creating Didius Falco, the Roman private eye. I vaguely hoped there might be a series in him. I had planned nothing.

I still don’t plan because that would be boring. But my new book Desperate Undertaking is the tenth Flavia Albia novel; this is a romping spin-off that takes my original character and his adopted daughter through 30 linked books. I built a world. I hope it’s accurate, but hey, it’s fiction! For a joke, I created a huge family, many disreputable, some with unofficial fan clubs, one doomed to be eaten by arena lions. As I told my friend who wrote The Archers, you don’t get that in Borchester; she ground her teeth jealously.

Once published, of course there was a market. If, as I explored the Roman world, I explained it, marvelled at it, and was unafraid to wander beyond and below the elite marble monuments that had once been the only classical setting allowed, readers would be happy. Mine can handle a palace, but they love scenes in bars. Having learned of laundries where tunics were bleached with human urine, they were ready for anything – and what they wanted was more of my down-at-heel ’tec solving grubby crimes from his tenement office, plus the whole soap opera: the lively doings of his friends, family, associates and even his dog. Providing this kind of series was brilliant fun. I did not know then that the long line of books would become a solace for many readers in covid lockdown, making me proud and amazed.

On this extraordinary anniversary, I am bound to reflect. My preferred length as an author is definitely the novel rather than the short story – and mine are long, meaty novels packed with background and jokes – but it does suit me to configure settings, situations and characters in greater depth, slowly over time in extra books. I like villains who emerge gradually and love affairs that simmer. Less often remarked on is that I haven’t written 30 ‘cosies’ where each book is exactly same, but I’ve taken advantage of the rich variety that crimewriting itself offers. I’ve covered many kinds of serial killer – chucking body parts into aqueducts, hijacking lone travellers, preying on sex workers in twilit imperial gardens – but used domestic tragedies and political shenanigans too. I did a courtroom drama. I had a fine time with my fire-brigade procedural and often discuss evidence collection or interrogation techniques. My witnesses and suspects have been bureaucrats as often as organised crimelords. Sometimes the dénouement is a scary chase, sometimes everyone gathers, perhaps in a library, for the dark plot and its clues to be revealed by the sleuth.

My current protagonist, Flavia Albia, is female, which has added a new layer of difficulty for her, and she’s British so her view of Roman traditions and history is coloured by a different cynicism. The basic mystery structure still works. People die, their associates seek help, the authorities try to duck out but the investigator’s morality means she will find and stop the killer(s), explain their motives, and provide justice for the victims and those affected by their ghastly deaths. All while in sensible shoes and excellent ear-rings, and operating a strict fee scale for her services.

Desperate Undertaking is set in the most extreme Roman theatre, so it’s more gruesome than my usual scenarios; yes, I think the blood on stage is even worse than gladiating. Six or seven ghastly deaths. Its gentler follow-up will be one of those suspense novels where you work slyly, opening a situation with a delicate scalpel, but murder is delayed until the end. (NB my bloodthirsty editor may veto this.)

30 books – but there remain locations, narrative ideas, family members to be sorted out, plotlines to be finished off. I may be in a ‘vulnerable’ age bracket now, but I’ve told my personal trainer to keep me fit. This is my series. I still don’t plan, except to say: there will be more.

Hodder & Stoughton Hbk. 7 April 2022.

" entertaining romp through ancient Rome in the company of a very strong and memorable character who knew it inside out."


Lindsey Davis

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