I had left my office job, sick of always being given the hard tasks and never being given rewards. A romantic novel I had written to cheer myself up was runner-up in a competition, so I decided to risk all and try to be a writer.
I wanted to write historical novels, probably romantic fiction for women. My chosen period was the English Civil War, which I tackled in the only style I have ever used: with humour, domestic interests, and also politics. Humour worried publishers and so did politics — even when the setting was a great revolutionary conflict! I had serials published in a women's magazine (they are tougher than people think and could cope) But I just could not find anyone to publish my work in book form.
Needing to pay my bills, I decided to change the setting. It was madness to choose the Romans, of course, but I always liked a challenge. I had been introduced to archaeology at school, particularly Roman Britain, which I now took as my starting point. Researching the Roman Invasion under the Emperor Claudius, I stumbled upon Vespasian. I convinced myself that people would have heard of the Colosseum in Rome, which he built, and that if they had read 'I, Claudius' or seen the superb BBC TV serialisation with Derek Jakobi, they would find this era accessible.
In the Suetonius biography of Vespasian was a tantalising reference: 'after his wife died, he took up again with Caenis, his former mistress and one of Antonia's freedwomen and secretaries, who remained his wife in all but name, even after he became Emperor'. At the heart of this is the fact that a Roman senator was legally forbidden to marry a slave. The way Suetonius nervously refers to the affair — wanting to disapprove yet not quite managing it — attracted me.
When I worked out dates, using the known birthdays of Vespasian's two sons, I realised that here you had two people who were lovers when young, who separated for a period of many years during his marriage, and who went back together in middle age. That would be very unusual even today — it spoke resoundingly of True Love. An additional twist was that when Vespasian so unexpectedly became Emperor at the age of 60, everyone (including Caenis) must have believed that he would abandon her a second time?
I put many personal experiences into the novel, not least what I had learned at work — because this is, after all, the archetypal Secretary-to-Boardroom story. My Mom thought it was my best work; that counts! No publisher saw her point for the next ten years, during which time I developed the Falco detective novels and perhaps helped make the Roman period look more friendly. When at last 'The Course of Honour' was published, internationally, it was a special thrill for me. I see it as my first real book, and because the true story is so wonderful, it will always be my favourite.
I have been joking that after fifteen years of writing about Falco, I finally found a book that told me what Roman informers do.
Of course we already know what he says he does. 'I'm a private informer,' he tells Sosia in 'The Silver Pigs'. 'I operate for sad, middle-aged men who think their wives are sleeping with charioteers and even sadder ones who know their wives are sleeping with their nephews... '. By the time I came to write 'Shadows in Bronze' I felt I should elaborate the wisecracks. In a dire situation and a grim mood, Falco mutters: 'In my time I had operated for perjurers, petty bankrupts and frauds. I swore court affidavits to denounce highborn senators for debauchery so great that even under Nero it could not be covered up. I found missing children for parents who would better abandon them, and pleaded lost causes for widows without legacies who married their spineless lovers the very next week - just when I had got them some money of their own. Most of the men tried to dodge off without paying, while most of the women wanted to pay me in kind. You can guess which kind. Never a sweet capon or a fine fish.'
Clearly I had done some serious research even then. But last year I came across a new book that evaluated the origins and work of the known informers in the imperial period. It was a cross between those American lawyers we call ambulance chasers and the high-powered, very high-earning libel lawyers who operate here for celebrities and macho businessmen. In Rome there were several kinds, including those who rose from impoverished backgrounds, just like Falco, often working under cover for an emperor, just as he does. Another, very visible type was one I had not yet explored: men whose rank was much higher. They were loathed for abuses under Nero, when informers in the upper echelons of society frequently helped him to condemn men whose wealth he could plunder. Senators in that period who acted as accusers in court targeted their social equals, accused them of serious crimes (probably falsely), then either helped the emperor acquire to their estates and took a percentage or themselves acquired the money directly. They were blamed for both their greed and their cruelty. The victims were often innocent, but the whole Senate was forced to co-operate and to implicate itself in the guilty verdicts, acting out of fear.
That was an interesting scenario. I envisaged a story where Falco, our ranter against social injustice, would rage against such practices - while himself caught in the ambiguity of sharing the trade of the men he despises. Legal work was what had given the informer (called a delator or an accusator in Latin) such a bad press with contemporaries. For Romans in the First Century, use of informers was the trademark of an evil emperor, from Tiberius through Caligula and Nero - and eventually it would be one of the bad practices that damned Domitian. Domitian is Falco's long-term enemy, which gives this extra piquancy.
As I plotted this story I decided it would feature real-life high-rank prosecutors. Falco would reluctantly move into their world, at which both he and I had hinted frequently. That quote from 'Shadows in Bronze' has him claiming to belong in it already. It was time to see what he could do in a legal thriller - and perhaps even time for him to show off his advocacy in court.
I was not sure that I could write legal speeches. You will have to give your verdict on that!
My first need was for a legal plot, which needed a particularly Roman flavour. I found that in a wry situation where it becomes the task of a 'good' Roman lawyer to advise a client that for reasons of family honour (and to protect his money) his best course is suicide. You will see how it works. This situation enabled me to show how differently we view some elements of Roman society now, something I have always regarded as one of the main features of writing historical novels. It is also an ideal starting point for a crime novel, as you have the immediate question, was it really suicide?
Luck plays a great part in planning a book. As I first investigated the known informers in my period, I simply looked for a couple I could use. Perhaps I even specifically wanted men about whom very little was known, so I could invest them with characteristics nobody could challenge. This is feeble, I admit, but I have never quite recovered from using the name of Rutilius Gallicus then finding out too late that 'More is known about Rutilius Gallicus than any Roman of the period outside the imperial court.' (In fact, watch out for the return of poet, soldier and statesman Rutilius soon, in a key role... ) This time luck was with me. I settled on Paccius Africanus and Silius Italicus as my chosen men. Both, as it happens, had an intriguing and sordid past. Even better, both were rewarded for their tainted histories with the state's highest honours - and their rewards came the very year after my book is set! I found myself reacting to that just as cynically as Falco would. I won't spoil the story by telling you the 'sleaze', but the information leads to what may be his finest hour so far.
It gets him into trouble. Still, readers will be expecting that.
I did not consciously set out to make good his old boasts about his profession - yet I can tell you, there is perjury, bankruptcy and fraud. There is even a widow with a legacy problem. There are wives who may be sleeping with the wrong people and husbands ditto, naturally. But to start at the beginning: Falco agrees to swear out a court affidavit, in a case involving a senator.
Didius Falco has never been a text-based 'tec. It wouldn't suit him, and to be honest it wouldn't suit me. I struggled with the classics. When I started writing fiction about the ancient world, I did seek inspiration back with the Latin authors - Martial and Juvenal, Horace, Ovid, Virgil, with Tacitus and Josephus for period history, especially the lives of Caenis and Vespasian in 'The Course of Honour'. But instinctively I look first to archaeology.
This goes right back to a school Archaeological Society. Ah, the thrill of sitting in darkened rooms - with boys! - as we scrutinised slideshows of excavated post-holes; post-holes that were often rather hard to discern, I fear. I diced with travel-sickness as we went by coach on field trips to the Roman cities of Chester, Lincoln and York. My home town of Birmingham never featured, and nor at that time did London. Although something has always been known of Londinium, there were serious gaps, some of which are now being filled in most exciting ways. Changes in legislation during my lifetime have encouraged big developers to report archaeological finds, and allow them to be excavated; much of Roman London lies under the 'City' - the modern financial quarter, where expensive offices are constantly being rebuilt - to the benefit of archaeology. The very existence of an arena was unknown, until a recent dig at Guildhall Yard exposed curiously curved stretches masonry which were recognised as the classic ovoid of an amphitheatre.
Discoveries like this prompted me to set 'The Jupiter Myth' in London. I could take advantage of the fact that many of my characters were in Britain at the end of my previous book 'A Body in the Bath House'. Historically, Julius Frontinus, who had played a key role in 'Three Hands in the Fountain' would now be the provincial governor, backed up by my own invention, and old favourite, Flavius Hilaris, the good civil servant. The arena would have been newly constructed (its timbers have been dated, fortunately, so we know this) and I could also explore another intriguing find of recent years. Many of us In England had seen press reports of the 'bustum' burial in Southwark, just south of the Thames. It contained the bones of a fit young woman and rich finds, some associated with the arena, leading to claims that this was 'Britain's first female gladiator'. Well, local archaeologists think that is unlikely, but it was too sexy, in every sense, to ignore completely. I see no point in bending the facts as we know them, but an author of fiction can explore the idea. Who my 'Amazonia' is you must discover from the book - but she goes right back to 'The Silver Pigs' - and she's trouble!
As for Milo's waterwheel, that was discovered right at the point when I was writing that chapter - the Museum of London archaeologists were amazed that I had managed to put it in. They are now preparing a technical book about the waterwheels on hat site, which are unprecedented finds - and they have asked permission to quote my description of how a treadmill version may have worked!
Archaeology has given me a few headaches over the years. I survived the sheer terror of descending into the still active Great Sewer under the Forum of Nerva in Rome, wearing a plastic mac, wellies, and Marigold washing-up gloves to fend off Weil's Disease (which is born in rats' pee and is frequently fatal). I have choked on a grain of rice in Libya, while my companions, unaware of the gravity of my plight (or so I tell myself), light-heartedly discussed how Agatha Christie's booksales went up immediately she died... I have bitten back frustration, looking at the fine stone theatres in Syria, knowing they were too late for me, and that because they are so fine, nobody has ever explored what earlier versions might have been on the spot. I have eaten Roman food (and not choked). I have been greeted by knobby-kneed centurions in cardboard armour and spectacles, and have not fled but have taken the opportunity to research the fact that the ear-protectors on their helmets made them a bit deaf.
London had its own awkwardness. Key Roman features like the fort and the bridge still have tantalising question marks. There was simply not space in my story to include Greenwich, where I live, despite a recent TV programme about its temple complex and the route of Watling Street. Then to describe a city vividly in a novel involves more than just positioning its buildings on a map. Archaeology tells me from their relics what kind of people were present: the governor, the army, the customs service, then potters and glass-makers, bar-keepers and wine-importers, sellers of fresh food and fast food. Historians vouch for the trade in hunting dogs and the Vespasianic influx of those supposedly civilising lawyers. Poets applaud Rutupiae oysters.
It would be a plodding old novel that simply stated these people were here. My task is to imagine the colour of their lives and how they felt about the province of Britain, which was new in the Empire and ripe for exploitation, yet where the Boudiccan Revolt had shown Rome's presence to be both tenuous and perhaps pointless. For this, the spirit of the place, my inspiration came not from archaeology but a very unlikely source. I had been invited to be guest of honour at a mystery convention in Anchorage, Alaska. Now I shall never be able to put Falco in a frozen landscape, face to face with a large moose (such a pity!) But Anchorage is perceived to be, and I think perceives itself to be, what local folk call 'the end of the road' - the place where all the people who are travelling to 'find' themselves finally come to a stop because there is nowhere else to go. I recognised at once that this could be my starting point for Londinium. The conversation between Falco and Silvanus in Caesar's Bar grew directly from that idea: it gave me the city based on archaeological fact but with a human context. It is a city of both drifters and entrepreneurs, far-flung but up-and-coming, attracting not just worthy pioneers but the crazy and feckless - and all sorts of exploiters and extortionists.
Archaeology rarely gives us pointers to crimelords and their gangs. But then, really successful gangsters don't leave evidence of their crimes...
I have been writing now for over fifteen years, though it has passed in a flash. I always wanted to write historical novels, which were what I primarily read as a girl, but I never intended to cover the Romans. My interest was the political history of England in the Seventeeth Century and I did begin my published career with romantic serials about the Civil War for 'Woman's Realm'.
The Romans came later - first the love story of the Emperor Vespasian as seen through the eyes of his mistress Antonia Caenis in
'The Course of Honour'
and then my Roman detective, Marcus Didius Falco. Falco began as something of a joke: would it be possible to place a forties-style private eye two thousand years ago? Rome at that time seemed an ideal alternative to the big metropolitan settings of so may 'gumshoe' novels - a huge, dangerous, colourful city that saw itself as the centre of the world. It was full of characters on the make - and really did have men called 'informers', who hid behind pillars listening for information they could sell, or who actually took people to court in order to receive compensation like modern 'ambulance chasers'.
So Falco was born, a wise-cracking cynic, originally struggling hard to make his living in a grim topfloor apartment above a decidedly mean street. There he waited for people to bring him jobs he didn't want for which they probably wouldn't pay him; his calling was despised and dangerous, his rewards very uncertain. More recently he has come up in the world, for the stories are not formulaic and this gives me scope to investigate wider aspects of Roman life. Now he runs a kind of detective agency in Rome, in between acting as an overseas agent for the Emperor in various Roman provinces. He has worked in modern Spain, Syria and Libya - and several times in Britain. The stories have included 'police procedurals', a serial killer hunt, a classic whodunnit with a body in the library, and thriller-style adventures. 'The Accusers' revolves around courtroom drama, while 'Scandal Takes a Holiday' has a seaside location with a missing person hunt.
AD 70 was a lucky choice in several ways. I tapped into the huge interest people have in this period and there is a lot of material in the field of archaeology, my personal starting point for much of the background and some of the plots. In the past decade or so many more fascinating things have been discovered, especially in London, which I featured recently in 'The Jupiter Myth'. It is such a wonderful time to write about that I am never short of ideas. If Rome itself fails me, there are all those different provinces, including several exciting ones where I have yet to take my characters. I myself try to visit Rome at least once a year to keep my inspiration up-to-date, and I sometimes go to other Roman places in the year as well. There are many wonderful museums featuring the period; as well as the National Museum in Naples, a favourite is at St Germain en Laye near Paris. I am an addict of archaeological sites, which do so much to put it all into perspective.
Sometimes you have to use a lot of imagination, if only foundations are left, but at the best you are transported back in time. My favourite in Britain is Fishbourne Roman Palace at Chichester, to which I was able to devote a whole book ('A Body in the Bath House'). In Italy I love Pompeii and Herculaneum, of course, and often visit in November when they are almost deserted. For me, the most astonishing site there is the enormous seaside villa, thought to have belonged to Nero's wife Poppea, at Oplontis. I am particularly fond of the remains of the port at Ostia, near Rome, where 'Scandal Takes a Holiday' has just been set.