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Mike Ashley

Classical Whodunits: Murder and Mystery from Ancient Greece and Rome
Carroll & Graf, 1997


These twenty stories provide a feast for lovers of the Ancient World. The use of modern colloquialisms like 'okay' and 'jerry-work' surprised me - the Romans were not unacquainted with Germany, but it seems doubtful that the concept of jerry-building was current at that time. I would have liked more stories of Ancient Greece. However, "Aphrodite's Horse" makes a clever analogy. Possibly the author found it funnier than did this reader, but how I envy Amy Myers her memory. Complexities of relationship between the gods and goddesses compel me to keep Betty Radice and Robert Graves nearby. Dear old Socrates always lends authenticity, as do Bruni James' perceptive character studies in "Gateway to Hell", which has a satisfying, if sentimental, end. I love Lindsey Davis, both for her novels and for dedicating Poseidon's Gold to the memory of Rosemary Sutcliff. "Investigating the Silvius Boys", even sans Falco, is a vivid version of an old legend. I delighted in the mention of community service for Romulus - beautifully apt. "The Things that are Caesar's" by Edward D. Hoch is written with assurance and a feeling for Rome. Fascinating - but to assassinate mighty Caesar for merely killing a prostitute? An entertaining story and a novel use for the Colossus is offered by John Maddox Roberts in "The Statuette of Rhodes". With excellent plot and characters, this is truly outstanding. Despite dislike of constant warring and conquest of nations, I was impressed by Theodore Mathieson's clever "Death of the King". No admirer of Alexander, I was surprised by his equable (and gullible!) nature and also by his courage and great calm while slowly dying. The word fawn has great appeal and "The White Fawn" is no exception. Steven Saylor is a natural writer. Clarity is his strong point. There is a neat twist at the end of the story and the sense of Rome is strong. Claire Griffin's "A Pomegranate for Pluto", too, carries a powerful sense of Rome and the Romans. Her characters are quirky and vibrant. Unfortunately, literary descriptions of the agonised faces of the dead are not substantiated by medical experts who assure us that a dead person's face is totally devoid of any expression whatever - pity, since drama plus horror are so much more preferable. Long live the agonies! Despite the brutalities, there is a certain charm in "The Green Boy" by Anthony Price. Honesty and naivety served young Clodius well. Brian Stableford's "The Gardens of Tantalus" has a rich flavor of that magic blend of fantasy and history. "Told" by an old man, it reads smoothly, affording great pleasure to the reader, who will meet old friends...Apollonius, Pythagoras, Demetrius and Menippus. An intriguing mystery is skillfully described and solved. To read this is to discover why ancient history is so much more enriching than any period that follows. Phyllis Ann Karr's "The Ass's Head" brings Roman Britain vividly to life. Bodicca is here with her husband, Kynon. Their child (grandchild of Cassius Marcellus Flavian, legate of Camolindium in Britain) has been kidnapped. Conflict and emotions rage satisfactorily - plus mystery, suspense and suspicion. It would be unfair to reveal the denouement. Ron Burn's delightful "Murderer, Farewell" is amusing, yet sad for the poet Ovid, who is banished from Rome. Ingenious is the word for this tale and one wonders just why Ovid was banished. I think Gilbert in his beautiful Poets in a Landscape gives the answer. "In This Sign, Conquer" by Gail Nina Andrews and Simon Clark is set in the Library of Alexandria in the time of the Emperor Constantine. Extremely well plotted (and written), the mystery is of the locked room type, rather complex since the body gives evidence of having moved or been moved from a room locked or bolted both inside and out. Again, one has that wonderful sense of living for a few minutes in a different time. The fear engendered by the brutal General Romulus arouses a shiver, while admiration for Theocritus Amun Arten, physician, is instinctive. The story is never swamped by superfluous words or irrelevant matters. There are other stories here equally deserving of praise. Each of the twenty presents the reader with a brief glimpse into ancient Greece or Rome and we are left with the ultimate reflection that, brutal or idealistic, the Ancient World - so far as we may now presume to judge it - will continue to live in our minds. - Kay Sylvester From The Historical Novel Review (1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Kay Sylvester, 1/1/1998

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