söndag 17 mars 2013

The sad case of Anacrites - or, how to lose readers and alienate villain-lovers

For the second time in a short while, I'm distrusting my own judgement. I'm currently reading Master and God by Lindsey Davis, and though she's such a pro when it comes to Roman historical yarns, I'm finding it hard to warm to the book, or to the characters. Maybe, though, it's not the author's fault. Maybe, deep down, even my appreciation of a non-Falco Davis novel is poisoned by my resentment regarding Anacrites.

Lindsey Davis is the author of the hugely and rightfully popular Falco series, which follows the career of private investigator Marcus Didius Falco in ancient Rome during the days of Emperor Vespasian. Falco makes an engaging hero, mainly because of his sense of humour which shines through the first-person narrative. He has his trying points, though - for instance, he's a little in love with his own outsider status. Nevertheless, I can recommend the first ten books in the series - up to and including Two for the Lions - unreservedly. Then, in One Virgin Too Many, things slow down a bit, maybe because Falco's strangely ungrateful when he at last acquires the equestrian rank he has striven ten books to get (and what happened to the great wedding with Helena we'd been looking forward to?). In the next book, Ode to a Banker, the rot really sets in, and when things didn't improve in A Body in the Bath House I simply stopped reading the Falco novels. Well, all right, pace and plot improved in A Body in the Bath House. What did not improve, however, was the characterisation of Anacrites. Davis cooly and consciously ruins a perfectly good villain by making him increasingly brutal and ham-fisted, and humiliates him too by means of the Falco family.

So who is Anacrites, and why do I care so much that Davis broke him on her wheel? Well, he is the chief spy under Vespasian and a Greek freedman, sly and cynical. His relationship to Falco is strained most of the time, because Falco once took over a failed mission of his and completed it successfully (because of his contacts, as I remember, though Falco himself believes it was because of his superior skill). Sometimes, though, there's a thaw and they get along quite well for a time, until something new crops up which makes them enemies again. To sum up, Anacrites is - or was - the Clever Villain.

Only Falco doesn't think he's that clever. Because of the one botched mission, the PI actually believes himself to be smarter than the Imperial Chief Spy, which becomes a bit wearying after a while, because of course he isn't. Not, that is, until in Ode to a Banker, where Anacrites seems to have swallowed a bowl-full of stupid pills and confirms all Falco's smug assumptions. He gives Falco's mother bad advice on banks. He has an affair with her, but she also has an affair with an old neighbour (two-time Anacrites? Get away!). He shows interest in one of Falco's sisters, but she turns him down. In A Body in the Bath House, he responds in an ungentlemanly manner by having her lodgings wrecked - at the same time as he botches another spy mission. In one plot-line after another, Anacrites loses all his clever-villain cred., and it's just painful to watch. After A Body, I couldn't go on with it.

There are larger things at stake here than the destruction of a dreamy chief spy. By making him more or less into a figure of fun, Davis has shown disrespect to the villain-loving part of her readership. I'm not the only one with a weakness for baddies, happily, and I feel a particular fondness for authors who recognise villain-lovers as an important group of readers. That's one of the reasons I love Dickens. He put his villains through all kinds of misery, but he respected them, and he made sure most of his books feature at the very least one interesting "bad" character. Davis, on the other hand, by tarring and feathering a well-known and well-loved villain type (I mean - chief spy! Aaaah...), has more or less slapped the villain-loving community in the face, telling us "I don't need you, I only need healthy, sensible readers who root for honourable, under-dog private investigators". It is something it's hard to forgive. That's why the ghost of Anacrites may be getting in the way of my enjoying Master and God.

Falco book number ten, Two for the Lions, ends with the words "Anacrites was still alive". If only.