Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Top Five Roman Murder Mysteries


In terms of detective fiction, the only thing better than a good murder mystery is a good murder mystery with an interesting setting. I have a love of quirky, interesting detective stories with fun settings, from cozies like Riley Adams (Elizabeth Craig)’s Memphis BBQ books, set in a Southern restaurant, to quirky spoofs like Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth books, which are Raymond Chandler pastiches full of evil Druids and victimised fudge box girls set in Aberystwyth, to the City Watch Discworld books, in which our heroes may find themselves trying to produce a million-to-one chance so they can shoot a dragon. So obviously I have a great fondness for detective stories and murder mysteries set in my period of history, ancient Rome.

Spoilers follow; I’ve avoided actually naming the murderer but there are fairly substantial spoilers floating around. OK, very substantial spoilers. Best not read any of the details if you haven’t read the book…

5. The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Dio, an Egyptian philosopher
Detective: Gordianus the Finder
Context: The trial of Marcus Caelius Rufus, 56 BC
Is justice served? That depends on your definition of ‘justice’.
Why read it? I read this book a long time ago so my memories of it are vague, but it is surely one of the most fascinating Gordianus stories. I read the books out of order; I was particularly keen to read this one, because it was based around Cicero’s speech in defense of Caelius. This speech one of the reasons I have intensely disliked Cicero throughout my academic career. In it, he completely destroys the reputation of a woman called Clodia, using a combination of sexism and inferences. Clodia’s social life never recovered and she pretty much disappeared from public life after this. Saylor’s Clodia is a fascinating creation, largely built from the rather one-sided ancient evidence but managing to be sympathetic at the same time, while this story marks a turning point in Gordianus’ increasing disillusionment with his former friend Cicero. The actual murder mystery is something of a separate, though linked, issue, but holds its own among the high politics with its intensely personal context for Gordianus and its genuinely shocking conclusion.

4. The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis
Victim: Sosia Camillina, a relative of Helena Justina
Detective: Marcus Didius Falco
Context: The first years of the reign of the emperor Vespasian, AD 70
Is justice served? No.
Why read it? The first of the Falco novels is also the cruellest, the most cynical, the grittiest and the most bitter - though still written with the wry humour that makes him so beloved of readers. We meet Falco as a struggling bachelor and the murder that forms the heart of this book is by far the most tragic and the most affecting (though I confess I haven’t read all the books yet). The case is intensely personal and the solution firmly rooted in its historical context. Although justice is not directly served for Sosia, there is enough resolution and enough characters are brought to justice for related reasons that the ending satisfies, and of course her tragedy is balanced out by Falco and Helena’s happy ending. If you like Falco, you must make sure you read this first, character-defining story.

3. ‘Some Justice’, I, Claudius
Victim: Germanicus Caesar
Detective: All the main characters, really. Livia is the most successful.
Context: The death of emperor Tiberius’ nephew and adopted son Germanicus, AD 19
Is justice served? Some of it. Obviously.
Why watch it? This is more a courtroom drama than a detective story, but it still counts as a murder mystery, as most of the main cast spend the episode not just pursuing the case, but trying to work out what actually happened as well. The story is also told in Robert Graves’ novel, of course, but the format of this, as an hour-long courtroom drama taking place within one episode, is especially effective. Again, we have here a real and really mysterious death, which in real life may or may not have played out the way it does here. Like Saylor in both his novels listed here, Graves uses the classic historical novelist’s technique of taking a real death and a real solution and presenting an alternative, secret explanation - or, in this case, a deeper and more complicated explanation. His solution plays into the way he wants to present his characters later in the novel and is perhaps less shocking than you might think, given the characters involved, but he certainly spins a good yarn. The slow revelation of this solution over the course of the episode, and in particular Livia’s crucial dinner conversation, make for a satisfying hour of television and a refreshing change of pace in the middle of a long series.

2. The Man from Pomegranate Street, by Caroline Lawrence
Victim: Titus Caesar. Possibly.
Detective: Flavia Gemina, Nubia and Lupus. And Jonathan, sort of. And Aristo.
Context: The death of the emperor Titus, AD 81.
Is justice served? Your guess is as good as mine… probably not.
Why read it? Since The Roman Mysteries are children’s books, they are fairly light on murders, at least in the events of the books - recoverable crimes, like theft or kidnapping are more common (the characters’ back-stories are another matter all together). The later books in particular do go further into the murder mystery area, with poor long-suffering Nubia’s discovery of a dying man in The Slave Girl from Jerusalem standing out as a sign of slowly increasing violence as the characters and readers get older and more mature. The Man from Pomegranate Street, the last novel, goes to slighter darker places again, while remaining suitable for middle grade readers. One of the things I like about this story is that it’s not clear whether a murder has occurred - the mystery is, was it murder? It’s a really interesting approach, especially since this is a real-life death, and a slightly mysterious one. I also love that Lawrence doesn’t go for the obvious solution, but presents several possibilities, some quite shocking to a young reader - while at the same time ensuring that the resolution, as far as there is resolution, offers a level of reassurance (these are children’s books after all!).

1. Roman Blood, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Sextus Roscius
Detective: Gordianus the Finder

Context: The dictatorship of Sulla and Cicero’s defense of Roscius’ son, 81 BC
Is justice served? Er, it’s so long since I read it I actually can’t remember!
Why read it? It’s been well over ten years since I read this book and as you can see, I can barely remember most of the details! It’s number one on my list though, because I love the simplicity of the concept so much. Saylor takes an extant defense speech by Cicero and a real murder case and builds a murder mystery from it, offering his own (fictional) solution to the case and using Gordianus to explore the various characters involved, especially Cicero himself and his secretary Tiro. Saylor also examines Sulla and his dictatorship but, reading this long before I ever studied any ancient history, it was the murder mystery and the characters, especially Tiro and Bethesda, that appealed to me. It’s also beautifully and evocatively written. I could have lived with slightly less of Cicero’s actual speech perhaps - which bored me even before the Pro Caelio sealed my dislike of him - but otherwise, this is a cracking story and essential reading for Saylor fans.