Let us begin with the author.
Robert Harris made his name initially as a political journalist for the UK broadsheets (i.e. the more respectable newspapers). In the 1980s he wrote a number of non-fiction books on political subjects. He had long nursed, however, ambitions to be a novelist, and in 1992 he wrote Fatherland.
This was a piece of alternative history. It took place in a parallel universe in which Germany won the second world war. Given Harris's extensive contacts in the media -- television as well as the press -- it is not surprising that Fatherland was something of a hit; and this was not entirely undeserved, because it was a pretty capable thriller.
Next came Enigma, another thriller, this time about the WWII code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park. Readable, but no great shakes in my opinion. And finally in the thriller series, Archangel, a book about a long-forgotten son of Stalin's, and a novel which in my opinion was less than convincing.
In other words, what we have here so far is an odd sort of fictional career, in that the books -- to this reader at least -- tended to disimprove as they appeared. With most writers it's the other way round.
For his fourth book, Harris turned to the lays, so to speak, of ancient Rome. He wrote a book called Pompeii, which I'm afraid, given his track record, I didn't bother to read. And now we have Imperium, which is a novel about the life of Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC), said to be the greatest orator of all time.
I have been reading a copy of the American edition of Imperium, the cover of which seems to me to be thoroughly uninspired. The UK one is no better, though less cluttered. The US cover has a picture of a golden wreath of laurels, of the kind which some Roman emperors wore on formal occasions, and were pictured as wearing on coins. And absolutely no one, I would say, is going to see this cover in a bookshop and go, Ooh, wow, that looks really interesting.
In the first place, what does imperium mean? It means precious little to me, and yet I was once taught Latin and some ancient history. What does it mean to some product of your local comprehensive? Bugger all, I suggest. (To save you reaching for the dictionary, Oxford says that imperium means absolute power, and is a seventeenth-century term.)
And what of the general design of Imperium? That's not very enticing either. The pages are long, and Mr Harris is not keen on paragraphs, so the appearance of the text is solid and uninviting. Page 72, for example, contains no paragraph breaks at all, and is just an unbroken slab of prose.
However, we soldier on, if without much enthusiasm so far.
The novel turns out to be a biographical account of Cicero's early public life, as related (in the first person) by his domestic slave and secretary, Tiro. Said Tiro was, it seems, the inventor of shorthand, and was thus able to write down Cicero's speeches as they were made, and was also able to take verbatim notes of discussions -- a talent which, as the book explains, sometimes alarmed those with whom Cicero spoke.
Cicero, it turns out, was both a lawyer and a politician, ambitious, able, and hard-working. A decent man, on the side of the oppressed. So far so good.
The first part of the novel describes how Cicero acts on behalf of those who have been robbed and worse by the governor of Sicily, one Gaius Verres. And it's an interesting enough story as far as it goes. The politics of ancient Rome were, however, fiendishly complicated, and this requires Tiro to spend much time and space explaining things to us; this does not help the story along.
By about page 50, I was making a note that this is a very masculine book. It's a book all about men. Women very seldom get a look in. And that's all very well, and no doubt true to its period, but is it going to help the author to find readers? I rather doubt it.
One of the few female characters who does appear is Terentia, Cicero's wife, who on page 122 gives her husband some good advice: 'Make your speech shorter!' This is a maxim which Tiro/Harris might have taken to heart.
Halfway thorough the book, at page 150, Cicero achieves his first major triumph. And at that point, I'm afraid, I stopped reading. The rest of the book, from a quick look, seems to be more of the same. And overall the book is reportedly the first of a trilogy.
There is no doubt whatever that Robert Harris has an intellect of the first order. He has a most astute eye for politicians, whether in ancient Rome or our own times, and he has evidently done an enormous amount of research. And Cicero was undeniably a fascinating man. But did I want to go on reading, after part one? Sadly, no.
And what of sales? Making full use of his old contacts at the Times and the Sunday Times no doubt enabled Harris to achieve the big extracts and interviews which were featured in those newspapers at the time of publication (4 September in the UK). But as of 4 November the book does not appear on the Times list of the 50 bestsellers. Neither, so far as I can see, is it featuring high on any of the various US lists. It's just not that kind of book.