Marcus Corvinus is back for his sixteenth outing and this time he’s tied up with the demise of Emperor Caligula. No spoilers there…it’s a widely publicised historical fact. Ths time he’s pulled into the sleuthing business by the forceful honey trap that is one Lady Naevia Postumia, whose ex-husband – Lucius Naevius Surdinus – didn’t die from falling masonry quite as accidentally as the perpetrators would like to have Rome believe.
At least, that’s what her spirit guide, Alexander the Great no less, would have us believe. He might have a point because Marcus’ subsequent reluctant investigations reveal a death that’s tied into wider conspiracies at the very highest level. Of course, having established the death was a murder and produced a witness to the actual killer, Corvinus has to go find both motive and employer of the murderer. The family are good starting points what with the conniving Tarquitia, the young mistress of our dead ex-suffect consul who inherited a lot of property and money to the displeasure of Lucius Junior. Then there’s the youngest son, Hellenus, who’s estranged from his family and living as an “artist” in the slums of Rome. Add into the mix people like Gallio, the dead man’s bailiff, Tarquitia’s husband, Titus Otillius, a lawyer by the name of Venullius,
All of this doesn’t really provide any clarity for our sleuth and his usual adumbration with Perilla throws up more questions than answers.
This means Corvinus has to examine further and finds himself investigating the political circles around Surdinus which leads him into the sphere of Cassius Longinus, just recalled to Rome by Caligula from his Asia governorship, the two Gaulish senators, stoical Julius Graecinus and oleaginous Anicius Cerialis, and one Valerius Asiaticus. Each of the four has an axe to grind with the Emperor, all of which leads our hero into a conspiracy theory that gets him beaten up, locked up, warned, and generally in a lot of ‘furkling business’ than’s really good for him. As with all Wishart’s novels, the immediate directions of thought, understanding, plot and action never lead us to the bigger picture until we are in the very depths of his book, so we stumble through alleys and tunnels of dimly lit ideas and concepts before emerging into the sunlight of the truth of what’s really going on. Suffice it to say, this is a particularly satisfactory effort by both author and sleuth with a mystery that’s confoundingly delightful to wade through. By the end satisfaction is guaranteed all round, especially as this is a novel where the nominal ‘bad guys’ seem to get away with everything in a manner that’s…well….it’s alright, to be honest. No sense of being cheated.
Aside from the modern and irreverent vernacular like: “pukkah-sahib” or “pint of neat vinegar” that Marcus uses in these novels – something that normally has the historical purist in this reviewer spluttering into his coffee mug but chooses to be indulgent because Corvinus is a favourite read – there’s a few typos that appear all too common these days since the advent of the e-book. For example, “communi-cation” “sena-torial quartet”. There are some grammatical quirks: “bosky woodland” which is like saying ‘red blood’, the adjective describing the fixed noun. I liked the educational aspects in the novel. For example, a page or so explaining the word ‘recension’, time spent investigating the philosophy of Aristarchus, the etymology of ‘phobos’ and ‘phobeisthai’.
For all these minor quibbles and tiny footnotes of pleasure, I have to say that if you are a fan of Roman mystery novels – the likes written by Davis, Saylor, Roberts, Scott, Rowe et al. – then read the novels of David Wishart, especially his Marcus Corvinus series. They are a guilty pleasure on any day.