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David Wishart

Sceptre, 1997


This is a Roman thriller set in the time of Tiberius. The story begins with the hero Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus being summoned into the presence of Tiberius's mother, the aged empress Livia, who charges him with investigating the mysterious death in Antioch of her grandson Germanicus, Rome's 'golden boy'. In David Wishart's previous novel, Ovid, Corvinus parted with her on the worst of terms, having uncovered her role in the destruction of General Varus and his legions. She swears she had no part in the murder of Germanicus, but Corvinus is sceptical: 'I trusted her just as much as I would a snake with migraine.' The Governor of Antioch and his wife have been accused of poisoning Germanicus. The Governor has already been executed, but his wife still lives under the empress's protection. Corvinus emerges from the interview with his mind whirling. Is Livia innocent? Did the Governor and his wife really murder Germanicus? If so, why? If not, who did? Was it murder at all - or suicide? If so, why would the handsome and popular Germanicus take his own life, and in such an un-Roman way? The opening scene is vivid. The aged empress with her thick cosmetic mask and elaborate, towering hairstyle gives the impression of being already dead, an illusion heightened by the odour of preserving fluid that surrounds her. Only her terrifying eyes are truly alive. The story moves on to Antioch, where Corvinus and his wife are plunged into a morass of conspiracy and intrigue. They soon realise that someone powerful is pulling the strings... David Wishart has done his research thoroughly and brought 1st century Rome vividly to life. You move with the hero through his world of haughty slaves, violent freedmen, intrigue and corruption. You smell the City under its thin facade of Augustan marble. You learn what people ate and drank. (Bananas were rare delicacies.) You avoid fish caught in the Tiber. In fact, you avoid the Tiber altogether, especially in the heat, unless you're looking for corpses. The language takes you aback at first. You don't, for example, expect a Roman aristocrat to say 'Oh, shit!' But you quickly get used to this technique and it does make the Romans more accessible to the twentieth century mind. David Wishart is a classics teacher. His history is sound. He tells us that the only liberty he has taken is to lop ten years off the real Corvinus's age and deprive him of the consulship he held at this time. Although he has not been writing fiction long, Wishart has succeeded in creating a fast-paced, exciting mystery, laced with humour. A good read. -Mairead McKerracher From The Historical Novel Review (August 1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Mairead McKerracher, 12/19/2005

After the trial of Piso, Livia commissions Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus with solving the death of Germanicus in Syria. Tiberius, Sejanus, Agrippina, Drusus, Livilla and the consul Marcus Valerius Cotta Maximus Messalinus also appear in this political thriller about events and characters which never really manage to thrill, or even make us care. Second in the series. Copyright (C) 1994-1998 by Richard M. Heli

- Richard M. Heli , 12/19/2005

In my review of his enjoyable 1995 novel, Ovid, I discussed David Wishart, classicist, his writing style, his approach to history versus novels, and his use of the rich, young Roman nobleman, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus as investigator. That novel tells how Corvinus met Rufia Perilla, now his wife, and how his investigation into murderous Augustan politics enabled him to force the empress, Livia, to allow the ashes of Perilla's step-father, the poet Ovid, to be brought home for burial. It may then be surprising to find the current (1997) novel, Germanicus, opening with Livia summoning Corvinus - her former opponent - to the palace to ask him to find out who killed her grandson Germanicus and why. It is even more surprising because everyone knows that Livia poisoned Germanicus because she saw him as a threat to her son, the emperor Tiberius, or because she hated the Julian line (and, yes, the stemma is complicated). Livia swears she had nothing to do with the death of Germanicus and wants Corvinus to find the truth. Unfortunately, as in all of Corvinus' cases (there are at least 5 others beyond the two mentioned), such investigations are not only blocked by uncommunicative witnesses (many of whom outrank the young nobleman, who has not yet started to climb the political ladder) but they are also imperiled by physical attacks on Corvinus himself (generally by lower-class thugs, employed by highly-placed politicians), which just miss killing him thanks to providential intervention. Corvinus talks to various people in Rome and Antioch who were connected with Germanicus (step-son of the emperor, Tiberius) or with the man officially accused of killing him, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso. Of course, most of these people lie to Corvinus, but he manages to sort through their stories and piece together a version of what actually happened, which in one sense tallies with what many people thought had happened, though with a twist, and in another sense, is not at all what anyone outside of the imperial circle thought. Even those who thought they knew what, how and why were not completely correct. One of the people who knew the most was Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the dangerous title character of the next novel in the imperial saga, for which see the review by Michael Wells Glueck. Again, Wishart seems quite correct in his presentation of Roman life (except perhaps for a few expressions that may be too modern) and politics. Following the political motives of the politicians and generals may be taxing for the reader, but it isn't absolutely necessary to understand all the connections all the time. Wishart keeps the reader clear on the main lines of intrigue and deception and his narrator, Corvinus, sums it all up at the end. The characters are interesting and well drawn, as in Ovid, and many repeat from that book, especially Perilla, Bathyllus (Corvinus' majordomo), Cotta (Corvinus' uncle, currently consul), Scylax (operator of a gymnasium and client of Corvinus), and Agron (a muscular metalsmith and friend). Again, the account of what happened and why is not the standard historical version, but it does not conflict with the known facts. Instead it weaves them together in different ways to show different motives and culprits. So, the novel, in addition to being a lively, readable murder mystery, full of wit and action, is also an exercise in reconstruction of a historical complex of events to present a coherent and plausible account that just might be the truth. Even if it is not, that doesn't impede its working as a novel. There is a modicum of vulgar language that might bother some school officials, but I suspect that protests about requiring this book in a high school class would be very mild, if they were made at all. Below the high school, most youngsters would have difficulty following the politics and many might even give up on the book. I enjoyed reading this novel and found Wishart's take on the death of Germanicus reasonable and one I'd have to consider if I were analyzing the actions of this historical period. Fred Mench (with stylistic improvements by Michael Wells Glueck) 1/2002

- Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck), 1/1/2002

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