Books: Dark doings in ancient Rome

ANCIENT ROME seems an odd setting for crime fiction. What with gladiatorial shows, crucifixions and slave-bashing, any particular murder seems unlikely to stand out from the general carnage. How does a modem genre - which presumes the significance of tracking down a perpetrator, and the importance of guilt or innocence and individual mortality - thrive in such an atmosphere?

And what convincing Roman role can an author find for the figure of the detective, the central character in the murder story as we know it?

It seems an unlikely transposition. Yet the Roman mystery has a steady following among crime buffs - including classicists - whose mild exteriors must, I assume, conceal some blood-curdling fantasies of swaggering amid rat-infested insulae [tenements] or indulging in swift sword-play around the atrium.

Crime novelists handle toga-trouble in different ways. Lindsey Davis is a past honorary president of the Classical Association and winner of the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award for crime fiction. Her convincing translation of a Los Angeles private eye to the alleyways of Rome is in the Chandler tradition of style and toughness.

The leading character of her Falco series has been compared to Philip Marlowe, but this is Davis's 10th novel, and he has developed a strong personality of his own.

Marcus Didius Falco, wit and coward, has the credible ancient role of a notorious informer, willing to serve whoever pays him most as he dodges through the mean tabernae [taverns] trying to make a sesterce or two and hang on to his girl. He keeps a few modern sympathies, however.

One Virgin Too Many finds him indulging, albeit reluctantly, in child- protecting heroics and being nice to doggies in what was probably a rather un-Roman way.

The narrative bowls along in this story of a gruesome corpse and the dark secrets in a noble family of high priests and Vestal Virgins. Falco, suitably embarrassed by his elevation to the exalted position of Procurator of the Sacred Poultry, is so entertainingly sharp-witted that any reservations about the combination of a modern genre and long-dead history are overcome. If ancient Rome was not like this, it ought to have been. The book is as lively as a beaker of the finest Falernian wine.

One of the problems of fiction set in the remote past is how to convey sufficient information for the modern reader. What were the Vestal Virgins all about? What went on atop the Capitoline Hill? Authors such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, or even Robert Graves, could take it for granted that their readers had a fairly extensive knowledge of classical history.

For a modern audience, such questions have to be answered unobtrusively as the story goes along. Davis has a light touch with her history.

Like her, Steven Saylor is respected for his accuracy, but he gives us much more complex detail of Roman politics and military history. His latest novel, Rubicon, features Julius Caesar's advance on Rome across the Rubicon, and its value as a metaphor for decision-making in general.

Saylor's detective figure, Gordianus the Finder, is in the Holmesian tradition of the intellectual concerned with working out a problem. He's from a more elevated section of Roman society than Falco, and many real historical characters - such as Cicero, Pompey and Mark Antony - appear in his world. The book begins dramatically, with a body turning up in his Roman villa, and the ending springs a genuine surprise on the reader.

There's an interesting account of how to send secret messages written in invisible ink on a pig's bladder (based on an ancient record) and a good sea battle ("Starboard catapults, fire at will!"). I found Gordianus's ethical scruples too goody-goody and proto-Christian to be credible, though, and the helpings of Roman history are extremely heavy. You need to be able to take in quite a lot of stodge about the Republican civil wars to get through this one.

The Germanicus Mosaic, Rosemary Rowe's first venture into the Roman genre, is set in the salubrious surroundings of second-century Gloucestershire, rather than in the mayhem of the Eternal City itself. The book is really a traditional country-house mystery translated to the Roman world - even featuring the mandatory body in the bibliotheca.

Rowe has had the clever idea of making her detective-figure a mosaicist, and, therefore, an expert in puzzles and patterns.

Into the bargain, he is a freed Celtic slave, and thus an outsider to the brutalities of the conquerors, and a character with whom the reader can sympathise. There are charming details about innocent life on the fringes of empire, featuring rustic retreats and herbalists.

However, I must confess to being personally corrupted into a taste for the dark, torchlit taverns and wicked excesses of the evil old urbs herself. In a purely literary sense, of course.

Jane Jakeman