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David Wishart

Hodder & Stoughton, 1995


Aristocrat Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus uncovers a conspiracy of silence which prevents his recovery of the ashes of the exiled Ovid. In the tradition of Suetonius and Graves. The writings of ill-fated General Quinctilius Varus appear, regrettably less so, those of Ovid. A mystery with political thriller. First in the series. Copyright (C) 1994-1998 by Richard M. Heli

- Richard M. Heli , 12/19/2005

The rich, young Roman nobleman and investigator, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, tells how he was approached by the lovely young matron, Rufia Perilla, who wanted his help in convincing the appropriate officials to let her bring home for burial the ashes of her step-father, the late poet Publius Ovidius Naso. Ovid had been exiled to the Black Sea area by Augustus back in 8 AD and had been kept there by Augustus' successor, Tiberius, until the poet died in 17 AD. The reasons for the exile are historically fuzzy: Ovid himself says of them in his own writings that he was guilty of "carmen et error", a poem and a mistake. Most scholars feel the poem was Ovid's Art of Love, which ran afoul of Augustus' moral reforms, and the error must have had something to do with the emperor's grand-daughter, Julia, since she was exiled by him for adultery, also in 8 AD. (She died in exile in 28 AD.) Corvinus is the logical choice for Perilla to approach, since his grandfather had been Ovid's patron and Perilla considers herself Marcus's client. There should be no problem. Corvinus appreciates good wine and beautiful women, even if Perilla is both married and strong-willed. But Corvinus encounters unforeseen difficulties: no one, from the emperor on down, seems willing to allow Ovid back, even in cinder form. This does not make any sense to Corvinus, so he sets out to learn why, which involves discovering the specific grounds for Ovid's exile. When various attacks are made on Corvinus in the course of these investigations, it becomes apparent that there is an especially sensitive aspect of the affair, which some highly placed people (Tiberius? Livia? Mr. X?) prefer to keep concealed, about what Ovid had seen (and not reported), and this seems tied up not only with Julia's exile (was it really for adultery or were political transgressions involved?) but also with the disaster of the Teutoburg forest in 9 AD, when the German leader Arminius wiped out three Roman legions under the command of Varus. Wishart runs throughout the book strands of the stories of Varus and Julia and Ovid, and it is Corvinus' s job to untangle and then to reintegrate them. There are various murders or attempted murders along the way, as well as a kidnapping of Perilla, but Corvinus unravels all the answers and has them confirmed by a high imperial source in a face-off at the end of the book. The result is permission to bring back Ovid's ashes and an agreement that Corvinus will not make public what he has learned. Corvinus has also appeared in at least six other novels by Wishart up to at least 59 AD, all of them narrating his investigation of some crime, generally murder, involving people of the highest rank. The books are well written and easily read. The language is sometimes earthy or bawdy, especially in the metaphorical language of oaths, but the activities described are relatively discreet. Corvinus is an engaging character, despite the fact that he rarely appears without a wine-cup in his hand, and the other characters are well drawn, including upper-class political people and lower class thugs and helpers. The slaves are adroitly depicted, with Corvinus' head slave, Bathyllus, revealed as a complete snob who is very good at his job and who keeps himself well informed about everyone in Rome, at least everyone in the upper classes. Perilla reappears in subsequent adventures, as do some of the other characters from this first installment. Once Wishart has created a good character, he has little reason to abandon him or her, much in the same way that Wishart's contemporaries and rivals, Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor (as well as John Maddox Roberts and Marilyn Todd) hold on to their serial detectives (Falco, Gordianus, Metellus, and Claudia) and to their various friends and relatives, whose roles develop over a number of books. A classicist living in Scotland, David Wishart brings a solid background to his novels. He doesn't seem to go wrong on historical or social details, and he looks at established facts with some skepticism, a habit which enables him to give differing interpretations of historical events from the traditional views. Most of his characters are real historical persons, although he obviously fleshes them out well beyond the accounts of his sources. The key to his originality is that Wishart's new interpretations first give rise to a "but that's not how it happened" response but then turn into a "well, it could have happened that way" concession. Wishart says in his preface to Germanicus that historians and novelists are alike in that they are both obligated "to be accurate where actual events are concerned" but differ in that "to the historian subjectivity, speculation and the attribution of motive are anathema; to the novelist they form the basics of his stock-in-trade." Wishart hopes his fictions are possible, even plausible, preferably convincing, perhaps even true, but he acknowledges that they are not established fact. (If they were, there wouldn't be much for a novelist to write about.) If you want an informative account of Roman life, an interesting mystery to be solved, vivid characters and intriguing interpretations of important historical events, Wishart's Ovid will fit the bill very nicely. If, instead, you seek deep pondering of the nature of the world and of human truth or beauty, then Wishart may not be your choice. At the very least, such philosophizing is not the uppermost aim of his novel, but then neither is it overwhelmingly present in any of the other Roman mysteries currently on the market. The four other authors noted above, however, are all well worth reading; and so is Wishart. If you were thinking of using this at the high school level, you might want to read it first in order to anticipate possible opposition from your school board. There's no reason why there should be such, but it is best to be forewarned. More mature students might find it an interesting project to compare the standard versions of these events with Wishart's reading of them, and to give a reasoned assessment of each. Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck) 1/02

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

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