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David Wishart

Old Bones
New English Library, 2001
Barnes & Noble


Detective Narrator: M. Valerius Messala Corvinus Place: Etruria (and Rome) Date: between 32 and 37 AD (P. 283 says almost 40 years after Aug cos XII) There are murders aplenty in this entertaining and informative historical novel. Wishart’s serial detective, the young senator M. Corvinus, had left for Athens after the fall of Sejanus (which he had helped to bring about) and had remained there during the entire action of the previous novel, The Lydian Baker. Now, however, together with his wife, Perilla, and their adopted daughter, Marilla (introduced in Wishart's earlier novel, Sejanus), Corvinus is on a visit back to Italy to see his mother, Vipsania, and his step-father, T. Helvius Priscus, the antiquities nut. This is supposed to be a quiet vacation in the old Etruscan town of Vetuliscum, until Priscus is accused of knifing to death a local hotshot, Attus Navius. Of course, we all know Priscus didn’t do it; he just happened to be found by T. Clusinus standing over the body with the knife in his hand. The novel thus recounts the quest of Corvinus to prove his step-father innocent (fairly easy) and then to prove innocent the man he himself initially fingered as the guilty party, Larth Papatius, local vine-grower and husband of the tavern owner, the robust Thupeltha. There seems to be fairly conclusive evidence of Papatius’ guilt and the local prosecutor C. Aternius binds him over for the visit of the praetor’s representative, who will surely find him guilty and have him strangled. But Corvinus has second thoughts as three more bodies turn up, and more motives than you can shake a jar of fish sauce at for at least six suspects, individually or in collusion. However, none of these turn out to be the real murderer. The likely motives have seemed to involve suppression of scandal, a land scam, a wine doctoring scam, jealousy, tomb robbing or resentment of ill-treatment, but the motive ultimately turns out to involve preservation of family history. Corvinus sorts through all these suspects and various alternative scenarios, without becoming tiresome about it (as he sometimes did in The Lydian Baker). He shows himself intelligent and even willing to engage in a bit of heavy manual labor to gain information about the crimes. He does ultimately clear Papatius (even though he cannot tell the whole truth about the real murderer and has to rely on threats of exposing other misbehavior on the part of the officials in charge). Most of the comments I’ve made about this series in other reviews hold true: Corvinus and his family, as well as his friends and enemies are interestingly presented and seem historically accurate in their settings and attitudes, but Corvinus is still very flippant, much taken to drink (perhaps less so than in Lydian Baker) and given to modern idioms (ditto), but neither seems obtrusive in this work. Involving Marilla in the family mix provides added possibilities of interaction, but the main interactionfor Corvinus, as always, is with the bad guys and their cronies or family members. Only two of the people we think might be the murderer are innocent of criminal activity, and one of these is covering up an accidental death while the other seems morally questionable. The plot is plausible though intricate and the resolution is satisfying. The details about Etruscan history and ritual blend naturally into the story along with elements of Roman daily life and society. Wishart expects his readers to recognize the allusion to the easy descent to Avernus and to know something of Horatius at the bridge and Lars Porsenna, but ignorance of these traditions will not impede readers’ understanding of the story. A teacher thinking of assigning this novel to teenagers would have little difficulty with the sexual material involved, which are matter of fact and not detailed. There is some problem language (mainly "shit" and "fuck"), but not a lot. The sexual content of the vernacular word "bugger", as noun and verb, may be lost on most American readers. Old Bones provides both a complex mystery and a view of Etruria and Rome in the reign of Tiberius that should appeal to all ages, certainly to any who enjoy historical novels. Fred Mench (with improvements from Michael Wells Glueck) August 2002

- Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck), 12/19/2005

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