Alexandria (from Marcus Didius Falco series). Lindsey Davis. 2009. Century/St. Martin’s Press. 487 pp.
Murder mystery series. Some people love them, some people hate them. I fall in an in-between place: I don’t read a whole lot of them, but I like to dip into one every now and again. The one series I follow faithfully is the Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis, which I have been reading since the first installment, The Silver Pigs (1989). The Silver Pigs introduced Marcus Didius Falco as the hard-boiled imperial informer—Sam Spade in a toga. In that first book, the attempt to mimic (and sometimes parody) the noir detective genre was perhaps too heavy handed, but entertaining nonetheless. Since that time, Marcus and his crew of family and friends have evolved into fully fashioned characters that readers have obviously become fond of.
I think murder mysteries and mystery series offer several benefits that keep people coming back to them:
First, they provide a legitimate and socially acceptable means to contemplate death and depravity in all its permutations, followed by a reassuring ending.
Aficionados of the genre admire the skill required to work within the established format. The familiar patterns of the murder mystery provide a challenge to the author, similar to the challenge the poet faces when adhering to an established verse form like the sonnet.
For those of us who are less attuned to the form, the murder mystery still allows us to practice problem solving, as if we were pitting our wits against the author, trying to figure out the mystery before the Big Reveal.
Murder mystery series allow us to experience the life changes of a main character over time, just as we enjoy and endure our own life changes. This is more true of current mystery series than of the older varieties. I don’t seem to remember Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot going through many life changes. They just were.
Finally, through their formulaic construction, murder mysteries offer a level of comfort. We know the fundamental contours of a murder mystery before we open the book. Of course, it’s this predictable aspect of the murder mystery that leaves it most open to criticism. Yes, there are mysteries and mystery series that have refined all intellectual challenge or interest out of their formula. And there are readers who opt for the most predictable and unoriginal of series.* But those novels and those readers are just a small segment of the universe.
For all of us, even those who appreciate challenges, it can be nice to take a break and re-charge with a known quantity. When you are exerting your brain power, your emotional energy, your strength, and your patience in the interest of some grand effort (raising your children, paying the bills, addressing the dysfunction of your relationship, combatting the national debt crisis, rebuilding a car engine, etc.), there can be comfort in the familiar and well-worn.
And that’s exactly the situation I found myself in a few months back. Needing a break from the stress of trying (and failing at the time) to relocate, I decided to take a break from it all and read another Didius Falco mystery: Alexandria.
The novel opens with Marcus and brood recently arrived for a family holiday in the legendary ancient capital of Egypt, where they bunk with Marcus’s uncle and his partner.**
A fair portion of the mystery is set within the walls of the great Library of Alexandria, one of the great wonders of the ancient world (with an action scene set at the Pharos of Alexandria, a lighthouse and another ancient wonder). The head librarian is found dead in his office, which is locked from the inside. Did he kill himself, or was he murdered? Why? How? Hijinks—and additional deaths—ensue. Marcus proceeds to uncover the requisite varieties of stealth, deception, jealousy, and embezzlement in his usual irreverent fashion.
Beyond her gift for making the classical world so accessible to the modern reader, Davis excels at the devastating characterization: “He probably believed he pushed with elegance and restraint—but in truth he was mediocre and bumptious, a little man in a big man’s job.” And Davis has obviously not forgotten her Dashiell Hammett: “He trailed a cloud of self-esteem, just as some men waft overpowering hair unguent.”
The most impressive thing about the book is the description of the great library, always punctuated with Falco-esque asides: “Our feet slowed reverently; the floor, made from enormous sheets of marble, was so highly polished it showed our blurred images. A pervert could look up your tunic; a narcissist could look up his own.” One wishes the novel came with color illustrations. Better yet, how about a BBC production of the entire series?
*The reader who flees from intellectual challenge wasn’t born that way. And, since each of us has been formed and deformed by the mighty forge that is Life, I think we should be careful with our judgments here.
**Yes, it’s anachronistically progressive. I’m not thoroughly versed in the attitudes toward homosexual couples in ancient Rome and environs, but there’s something about how no one even raises an eyebrow to this domestic arrangement that’s probably not quite authentic. Not that I’m complaining.