Character Feature: Marcus Didius Falco

As I have only read ten of the approximately twenty books in this series, this character feature is likely to be a “part 1″ with a part 2 expected many years from now. Please don’t hold me to that though!

Appeared in: Lindsey Davis’ series of crime/mystery historical fiction with a good dose of humour. Radio adaptations voiced by Anton Lesser in several BBC radio adaptations.

General character: Of Plebeian rank (the lowest order of the Roman hierarchy); the son of a second-rate antique dealer and long-suffering mother, after discharge from the infamous Legio II Augusta our hero carves out a career as an Informer… basically a Private Detective in 1st century Rome. He dreams of making enough money to work himself into the Equestrian rank – effectively the affluent middle classes. When he meets and falls in love with the divorced Patrician-rank Helena Justina, he is more determined to climb the social ladder.

Falco has had a tough life yet despite his “bottom feeder” status, he has done well for himself – arguably better than a lot of people who might have mixed with as a child or a teenager. He was fortunate to have had himself discharged from the military and his new career makes him enough money to afford his small, leaky apartment. His skills – and his fondness for classy women – get him noticed by the highest echelons of Roman society and most of the first half of the series he finds himself regularly summoned to the court of Vespasian. In each case he is usually promised another small step on that ladder to climb the social rank and to marry his love.

Complexities of character: Falco is the narrator of the series which is told in first person. This approach gives a much more lively view of the Roman world than perhaps a lot of other fictional accounts. It feels that much more personal because Falco has a non-nonsense approach and a very irreverent view of the Roman world that is very refreshing. He mocks the Flavians for their tight-fistedness and deceitfulness.

Despite his ambition to rise in rank, there are things he will not do. He rejects one offer of promotion because he doesn’t want to acquire a promotion through dishonest methods. Despite his background and despite the actions of some of his family members (particularly his father who is a bit of a Del Boy) Falco is an honest, upright man of strong moral principles. He has a code of honour firmly embedded from his military days (he did serve in one of the most celebrated of legions – the conquerors of Britannia) and a firm idea of the right way of going about things. Despite his criticisms of the Patrician class, often sneering and mocking in nature, he seems to believe in the hierarchy as it exists in the first century. After all, he wants to rise in rank through to the Equestrian class and to do it properly so that he can marry the woman he loves. He is given that chance after thwarting a plot to overthrow Emperor Vespasian. He vows to accept no favours, to climb the ladder in the proper fashion.

In the second book Shadows in Bronze we witness already how much he is prepared to sacrifice for the woman he loves. Her ex-husband is part of a group of conspirators who are being picked off by an assassin with a vendetta. He also has to cope with another apparent plot by the surviving conspirators. This involvement puts a strain on the new lovers but Falco sticks with it. Despite suffering difficulties in most of the books, and despite receiving offers of one night stands with women of varying attractiveness, it is to Helena Justina that Falco is committed. She challenges him; she makes him a better man and in return he gives her what as a woman of the Patrician rank she might not normally have received – true love.

There are some incredibly touching moments following Helena Justina’s sad miscarriage and we feel their anguish. We can perhaps understand how Falco attempts to cope with this, by withdrawing into the bottle and trying to recapture his lost youth. It is not right but we feel his anguish every step of the way and when confronted by Helena Justina we witness the pair at their most intimate.

Why I love Falco: His brute honesty and way with words:

The town of Herculaneum was very small, very sleepy, and if any interesting women lived there, they were hidden behind locked doors…. Unlike Pompeii, where we had to bawl to make ourselves heard, in Herculaneum you could stand in the Forum at the top of the town and still hear the sea gulls at the port. If a child cried in Herculaneum its nursemaid dashed to gag it before it was sued for a breach of the peace. At Herculaneum the gladiators in the amphitheatre probably said ‘I beg your pardon!’ each time their swords did anything so impolite as landing a nick. Frankly, Herculaneum made me want to jump on a public fountain and shout a very rude word.

Falco is even good to his enemies. When somebody attempts to kill his nemesis Anacrites, Falco is not only charged with attempting to find the murderer, but to play nursemaid and bodyguard. Anacrites will remain a thorn in his side throughout the series and despite being faced with an opportunity to do away with his own personal Professor Moriarty, Falco does the honourable thing – something he does come to later regret as any hero would do.

One of the funniest moments in the first half of this series is after having moved to a larger apartment to cope with their growing family and improved income, Falco gets blind drunk one night and afterward returns home to sleep it off… only he goes back to the wrong apartment and wakes up in an empty room. I had never laughed so loud at the series after reading that particular passage.

Of all the selection of historical crime fiction, this series is one of the most enlightening and amusing. Without a likeable key character, it would be easy for such a series to fall flat on its face. Falco is far more than likeable. He is sympathetic, funny, inquisitive and yes – flawed. And that is why we love him.

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