It seems to be an unspoken agreement amongst Roman historical murder mystery authors to have a murder mystery involving the Vestal Virgins. Wishart goes one step further, blatantly drawing parallels to the Bona Dea scandal of 63 which tends to misdirect the reader who is aware of that historical event, perhaps deliberately. So, with the inevitable comparisons to JMR and Davis, amongst others, aside, Marcus Corvinus moves into his latest novel with an easy familiarity.
Last Rites deals with another consular-level murder, Marcus being called in to discreetly investigate the death of the Vestal Cornelia during the Bona Dea rites. A reluctance for the senior protagonists to admit to anything that would indicate scandal leads us a dance through the subsequent suicide of Marcus Lepidus -Cornelia’s childhood friend, and the deaths of Cornelia’s maid Niobe, a fluteplayer who wasn’t present at the rite, Thalia, the original assassin, and an unfortunate member of the Watch, Chiro. There is the usual mix of accompanying characters, headed by the senatorial family comprising Marcus Lepidus Senior, his overtly promiscuous daughter Lepida and the fateful Marcus Lepidus Junior. The tight-lipped Vestal community headed by Junia Torquata and the immediate affiliates of the consul Galba all serve ensure this is one murder mystery that has Marcus delving into the highest echelons of Roman society. However Marcus spends the few days running up to Saturnalia picking his way through Rome’s murky politics and assorted colorful characters with a dry wit that makes for fluid reading.
All this, mixed in with Marcus’ daily home trials, epitomised in this novel by a very amusing episodic dealings with Perilla’s latest fad of a water clock and the delightful continuing development of the character of Bathyllus, means that Last Rites is another excellent offering from Wishart.
I must confess I managed to read White Murder before this one and this novel confirms Wishart’s tendency to use Rufia Perilla as Marcus’ `sounding board’ to both recap the day’s events and to outline theories. It is faintly annoying as it implies the author is keen to ensure we don’t miss a single clue and, rather than allowing us to theorize ourselves, dictates that we follow Corvinus’ thought process to the letter.
That aside, what Wishart does so well is mix murder and Roman politics so well, spending considerable time providing plausible motive for each crime, which is what makes Marcus Corvinus’ installments so fascinating. Highly recommended.
Categories: David Wishart