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John Maddox Roberts (1947 - )

Avon, 1990


This is a novel that has been unfairly overshadowed by the massive critical attention given to two other series set in ancient Rome. It's time to redress the balance by stating that in my humble opinion, Mr. Roberts's creation is far funnier and more engaging than that of Steven Saylor, and a better mystery than those of Lindsey Davis (which tend to assume that personal relationships constitute sufficient plots in themselves). Furthermore, the other two detectives are small-time private eyes, and I always find it difficult to believe that they could stumble upon conspiracies of any importance; whereas Decius Caecilius is a rising young politician from an important old Roman family, the Metellans, with easy access to those in positions of power. In fact, Mr. Roberts sort of gently inserts his characters into actual historical occurrences of the late Roman Republic (like slipping an egg into vinegared water to poach), trying to make up as little as possible and thereby preserve the historical specificity of his chosen era. In this novel, the background is the Consulship of Pompey and Crassus, shortly after the upheavals caused by Sulla, Marius, and the slave-leader Spartacus. Decius is an amiable sort, and not nearly as naive as people assume. Like all great diarists (the novel is in the form of a memoir) he is a realist, looking at the high-minded rhetoric of others with a skeptical eye; this makes for a great many delightful asides on the behavior of highborn Romans, such as this: Still standing, Father ate his breakfast from a tray held by a slave. Breakfast consisted of a crust or two of bread sprinkled with salt and helped down with a cup of water. This is a custom rich in staunch old Roman virtue, no doubt, but deficient in the fortifying nourishment required by a man who will spend a full day on the work of the Senate. It was my own practice to have a far more substantial meal in bed. Father always assured me that this was a barbaric practice, fit only for Greeks and Orientals, so perhaps I played an unknowing part in the downfall of the Republic. Be that as it may, I still have my breakfast in bed. However, he is not at all arrogant or full of himself; his realism extends to a frank assessment of himself as a very junior public servant, not above cadging a free meal or coaxing help from slaves. The adventure at hand begins when two corpses -- a gladiator and a wine importer -- are discovered in Decius's district, the Subura. Although corpses are "as plentiful as peach pits" in Rome, our investigator still feels obliged to account for these deaths. His suspicions are sharpened when people start hinting that perhaps he should curtail his inquiries into these murders; soon, a potential witness is also killed and Decius's home is robbed. With the help of two delightful companions -- the Greek physician Asklepoides (a sort of ancient Quincy, who has made a systematic study of knife wounds), and the goodnatured young criminal Milo -- Decius doggedly pursues these murders that no one wants solved. At the same time, a beautiful young woman named Claudia (one of the power-mad Claudians) tries to involve Decius in a conspiracy that might be sexual, political, or both. When he turns her down, he discovers that he has made some very powerful enemies, chief among them Claudia's even-madder brother, Publius Claudius Pulcher. It doesn't take a genius to see that this conspiracy will link up to the deaths in the Subura sooner or later, and that Decius's talent for snooping will drag him into dangerous waters. One minor quibble with an otherwise delightful series: the title is a true dog, as few people knows what SPQR means, and we care even less. Unfortunately, the publishers seem to have compounded the original error by calling the other books in the series SPQR II, SPQR III, etc. -Joyce Park of Troutworks

- Joyce Park, 12/19/2005

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