Hardboiled, Historical Mysteries

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

SilverHave you ever had a book that you keep buying copies of, starting but never seem to get around to finishing? For me that is Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs, the first of her series that features informer and imperial agent Marcus Didius Falco.

Over the past fifteen years I know I have bought at least three paperback copies and one audiobook and I can remember starting it and abandoning it on two different occasions. This was not because I didn’t care for it but because real life got in the way and by the time I was ready for it again too much time had passed and I felt like I’d have to start over. Would I ever actually finish it?

Obviously I did (I never write about books I didn’t complete) and I am very pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it probably helped that I listened to the audiobook reading by Christian Rodska whose gravelly voice seemed a perfect fit for Falco’s hardboiled narration. I certainly had no difficulty motivating myself to keep going this time and once the second phase of the novel began I finished the rest of the book in two sittings (a task that is fairly tricky to do with a ten hour audiobook!).

The novel begins with Falco encountering a sixteen year old girl in the forum being hassled by some thugs and his stepping in to protect her. After taking her on as his client, he learns that she has been hiding a silver and lead ingot in her lockbox stamped with the imperial seal. The ingot comes from the British mines but what was it doing in Rome?

Falco is soon on the track of a political conspiracy that spans the Empire but his world is turned upside down when the girl turns up dead. He agrees to work for her family to find the murderer and uncover the conspiracy, setting sail for Britain…

In a sense I am glad that I delayed reading this for so long. Back when I first picked up the book I had little knowledge of the hardboiled form and doubt I would have extracted quite the level of enjoyment I did reading this now. While the idea of placing that sort of character in a historical setting seems like it shouldn’t work, I quickly embraced it. Rather than pulling you out of the historical period, it serves to make that culture more accessible.

Falco is a wonderful creation. His cynicism and grouchiness instantly endeared him to me and I think Davis does a good job of building up a good cast of colorful supporting characters around him that help his Rome to come to life. Favorites included Lenia, a laundry owner whose shop is far below Falco’s apartment, his overbearing mother and his dodgy landlord Smaractus who employs training gladiators to collect his overdue rent. I also think Davis presents us with interesting takes on the various members of the Flavian family (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian).

This novel, as I hinted at before, takes place across quite a wide canvas and involves a fairly large number of characters yet I had little difficulty keeping track of who everyone was and what role they were playing. I think that speaks to the quality of Davis’ characterization. Rather than just present us with historical figures or confining the narrative to one strata of Roman society, Davis’ story presents us with characters from a variety of professions and social classes.

The case itself is a good one and perfectly reflects some common hardboiled themes. We get to see government corruption, grift at every level of society and our hero is often in completely over his head. Somewhat surprisingly the trope that isn’t present is the femme fatale, although it would be true to say that Falco is encouraged into action at several points because of his feelings towards certain female characters.

I particularly appreciated Falco’s interactions with Helena Justina, the Senator’s daughter he encounters while visiting Britain. The pair develop quite an enjoyable sparring relationship and I appreciated that as the novel progresses Davis is able to flesh out the character and help us understand what she wants out of life and why her marriage her failed.

Towards the end the reader is likely to get a step or two ahead of Falco and I think one attempt at misdirection is less effective than I think it was meant to be but that did not bother me too much. Even once it becomes clear how the story will end, I think Davis maintains interest in her characters and in how their personal lives will be resolved. I also felt that the ending does a good job of setting up further adventures for Falco, giving readers a reason to quickly return to the character.

While it may have taken me fifteen years to finish it, I really enjoyed reading The Silver Pigs and am looking forward to continuing the series with Shadows in Bronze. Hopefully I will be able to finish that one in a little more timely fashion!

Advertisements
Hardboiled, Movie Time

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I had been thinking a little about some of the features I would like to incorporate into this blog alongside the reviews of new and old books when it occurred to me that it might be interesting to take a look at a novel and an adaptation of that work in some format. The idea would be to comment on whether it captures the tone and spirit of the original work, some of the changes that were made and whether I felt it does the original work justice.

The novel and film I have selected to start with is Devil in a Blue Dress which I read for the first time over a decade ago. At that time I had never read a hard-boiled detective novel before and while I enjoyed aspects of the novel, I struggled to engage with the writing style and the novel’s grim outlook on the world.

Had it not been for an Audible special offer I might never have given the book a second thought but when the chance came to snap up an audio recording read by Michael Boatman for under a dollar I snapped it up on an impulse. Boatman brought Mosley’s hard-boiled prose and the character of Easy Rawlins and the characters he interacts with to life for me.

If you have never read the book or seen the movie, here is a potted summary:

It is 1948 and we are in Los Angeles. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is out of work and in desperate need of some money to help him pay his mortgage when into the bar walks DeWitt Albright, a white man who is offering to pay him to help locate a missing girl, Daphne Monet who he believes may be frequenting an African-American bar. That is, of course, just the start of an adventure that sees Easy getting beaten up, accused of murder and manipulated by just about everyone.

The Novel

DevilinabluedressbookThe first thing to say about Walter Mosley’s novel is that it is an incredibly significant and influential work within the hard-boiled mystery genre. Mosley was not the first successful African-American mystery novelist but he remains one of the most widely read and enjoyed. Easy Rawlins sees Los Angeles from a different perspective than other hard-boiled characters do and encounters different barriers in his investigations.

Simply being historically significant does not mean that the experience of reading it will necessarily be rewarding or enjoyable. After all, the first time I read the novel I was just as aware of its reputation but perhaps focused my attention on the plot without appreciating the skillful way Mosley builds a sense of time and place. What I noticed in my second reading that I had missed the first time through were the discussions of perception of a person’s race, of the lack of integration within society in that time and the way that Easy prizes his sense of agency above security at several points within the novel.

His story is compelling, especially in those sequences that feature the character of Mouse who is something of a wild card within Easy’s life and perhaps the ultimate example of the destructive friend who is really bad news. We learn about their relationship in flashbacks throughout the novel, building our anticipation for the moment when Mouse will inevitably enter the story.

While I found the narrative engaging, I did feel that the female characters in the story were somewhat one-note being defined primarily by their sexual presences. I recognize that this is hardly unusual for a hard-boiled work but it does make those characters seem a little flat and two-dimensional which is a shame when the characters of Easy and Mouse are so well drawn.

I am curious to see where the series leads and plan to listen to the next story at some point soon.

The Adaptation

DevilinaBlueDressmovieCarl Franklin’s movie adaptation stars Denzel Washington in the role of Easy. By the time this film was made he was one of the highest profile actors around, having found critical and commercial success with Glory, Malcolm X and Philadelphia. Looking at the cast list, he was really the only established star in the mix which may help explain why the film was not a box office hit in spite of some strong reviews from critics.

Franklin keeps the initial set-up of the story the same but makes some changes to some character motivations and adds a new subplot to help condense and simplify the narrative. Characters such as Frank become less of a presence in the movie than they do in the book while Terrell’s significance is increased.

There are two changes to the story that I found to be particularly significant however. The first is that Daphne’s relationship with Easy is not consummated as it is in considerable detail in the book. That choice, in my opinion, strengthened her character and made her feelings about a third character clearer.

The second change really arises from the first and is hard to write about without spoiling both the book and the film. What I can say is that while many aspects of the ending remain in place in the film, the character motivations in those final scenes are notably different and give the ending a very different tone. I think that this different ending largely remains in keeping with the themes of the novel but it does put a different spin on a key relationship.

Generally though I was impressed at how well the film bought the world of 1940s Los Angeles to life. Visually the film is not glossy or lush but it is competently directed and does a good job of setting the scene and evoking a sense of time and place.

I was also quite pleased with the way most of the parts were cast with most of the characters being fairly good matches for how I had imagined them when reading. The exceptions were Todd Carter and DeWitt Albright. In the case of Carter I had imagined someone a little younger and childish, though the actor cast matched the character as portrayed in the film. In the case of Albright however I had thought the novel had mentioned being from the Georgia and I imagined him to physically look like a lawyer rather than the enforcer interpretation we see from Tom Sizemore. While those changes may sound cosmetic, in the case of Albright I felt it diminished the character a little, simplifying him.

Where the film gets it absolutely right is in the casting of Don Cheadle as Mouse for which he won a number of awards. While I cannot say that Cheadle is how I had imagined the character physically, his interpretation makes a lot of sense and captures the character’s sense of bravado. When you consider just how much material from his story is cut, in particular the flashback descriptions of how he committed two murders and his discussion with Easy about guilt, it is remarkable just how complete his presentation of that character is. The film noticeably shifts a gear when he arrives in the narrative and he gets several of the most powerful moments in the picture.

As for Denzel Washington, he does a very solid job with the role of Easy, particularly given we are only treated to the character’s internal monologue as a bookend to the movie. Given how important his internal voice is to the character and to helping the reader understand what he is doing and his feelings about the people around him, it is impressive how much of those feelings Washington is able to convey through his physical performance.

Overall, I think the film has stood the test of time fairly well and works well as an adaptation of the novel. I was struck as I watched it though that the material would surely be even more suited to television where the story could be given more room to breathe.