I have actually read all the Corvinus mysteries but, for some reason, not reviewed most of them. If there’s a specific one you’d like to see a review on just let me know!
No Cause For Concern
OK, so the latest mystery has Marcus being forced by the shadier side of Rome’s underworld to investigate the disappearance of a family member. In this case, Titus, one adopted son of Sempronius Eutacticus, “organized crime’s equivalent of a crocodile with attitude.” The lad’s gone missing and his stepfather’s not someone you deny anything. All of which means Rufia Perilla’s husband is off on a pointless jaunt into the countryside environs of Rome’s towns – like Sutrium – to check out a circus before inevitably finding out the abductee is also murdered; oh plus his slave.
What follows is Marcus’ usual unraveling of a dodgy tapestry; this one adorned with local gang rivalries, seagulls, cold daughters, gambling hovels, accountancy discrepancies, and a few more deaths. Throw in a character list of nefarious crooks like Paetinius Senior and Younger, Astrapton, Quintus Bellarius, and the goon, Satrius, and Wishart has the ingredients for another fine mystery.
You’ve got the usual twenty-first century vernacular of Wishart liberally peppering Marcus’ speech. When he has our sleuth refer to Cato as “puritanical”, you know the author doesn’t really care about linguistic historical context too much. Then again, Wishart’s prepared to have us reaching for our dictionaries on occasion too; as when Marcus observes “clutching a mop like it was some apotropaic talisman.”
What does intrigue/impress me slightly is the amount of time Wishart gives over to Marcus’ love of wine. I nearly started Googling some of these to see if they had historical evidence (but never quite managed it). For example our hero imbibes Graviscan, Statonian, Falernian, Velletrian, and Caecuban. It’s hard enough keeping track of the plot without tracking Corvinus’ wine lists.
Anyway, as great as ever. Having seen the front cover on Amazon it smacks of “cheap-as-chips” publishing; I’ve no idea what shenanigans Wishart has had to get up to to continue the Marcus Corvinus mysteries, but I’m glad he’s back. Font sizes and jackets don’t really matter when you’ve got the trusty Kindle, eh?
Marcus Corvinus is a character whom I love as much as Marcus Didius Falco. I was immensely disappointed in 2008 when it all seemed to come to a crashing end in “Illegally Dead” and I tried to move on with the likes of Ruth Downie’s ‘Ruso’ novels or Rosemary Rowe’s ‘Libertus’ series. Yet, as palatable as those alternatives were, I sorely missed the wisecracking Corvinus, the oddly modern vernacular Wishart chooses to give his bright, wealthy investigator. The pairing of Marcus and Rufia Perilla, stepdaughter of Ovid, was in serious danger of being as iconic as Marcus Didius and Helena Justina. When Marilyn Todd stopped her adventures of the “champagne loving, irreverent Claudia Seferius” in 2006 I was consoled with Corvinus. Then, as we know it all stopped – publisher issues. The kind of thing that readers give not a fig for, yet are forced to endure.
And then, five years later I stumbled across Bodies Politic and the next – No Cause For Concern. Both kindled instantly; I then saw the upcoming ‘Solid Citizens’ was due in July and a big grin spread over my face.
Happy? I kid you not, I was delighted.
OK, I may be two years behind but I sat and read this novel in two hours, devouring every word. It was all so familiar; like the thumbed nose Wishart gives to the language – we have Marcus using words that didn’t exist till hundreds of years after his time, like: “Chop-Chop!”, “boy-band”, “top-bracket”, “Very bonny”, “In spades”, “snazzy”, “local wide-boy”, “rubber-necking”, and finally, the glorious sentence: “dirty-linen-furkling business.”
The plot is what you’d expect of Wishart – this time Marcus receives a mysterious visit from one Dion, freedman and nervous informant passing what purports to be a letter from the deceased Macro asking him to investigate the charges of treason that led to his passing. In a few pages we discover the letter is bogus but that doesn’t mean Marcus’ sleuthing appetite hasn’t been whetted and he trots off to see Caligula in order to get a sanction to investigate the “treason” and the “four top suicides in the space of eight months”. In turn this leads him to Alexandria to both help Perilla buy some wedding cloth, but, more importantly, see where civil unrest is brewing under the suspiciously laconic Governor Flaccus. It’s all very murky, the political maneuvering incredibly dangerous what with our hero dodging runaway carts, ad-hoc muggings, and obtuse suspects. In fact, as Marcus puts it: “this thing wasn’t like a straightforward murder with a definite victim and a definite perp. Oh sure, there were bodies enough, but they were bodies politic and they’d killed themselves…it wasn’t a matter so much of whodunit…as why it was done.”
The only topic that got uncomfortable was the rabid antisemitism of Agron’s wife Cass. I understand Wishart is setting up a riotous assemblage between the Greek and Jewish inhabitants of Alexandria as vital to the secondary plot but the vituperous monologue by the lady is repeated more often than is necessary. Sure, it shows how prejudice by the masses is based on vicious rabble-rousing rather than individual critical thinking, but I found it didn’t add anything to the plot.
Anyway, Marcus Corvinus is back and this reviewer is delighted….
A Vote For Murder
The title of Marcus Valerius Messala Corvinus’ latest mystery appears to indicate a mystery inextricably linked to the Roman tribal voting centuries, but this proves somewhat erroneous as we plunge into the murky politics of Latium and the apparent bad feeling between the Latins and the Romans (portrayed as decidedly one-sided). Marcus and Perilla are off to Castrimoenium to visit Marcus’ stepdaughter, Marilla, indulge in a wine-tasting contest at Pontius’ against a sheep, explore the gneral environs, oh, and solve a couple of murders along the way. Shortly after their arrival one of the two candidates for the local censorship- Vettius Bolanus, ex-fiance of Sulpicia, is found murdered in his own loggia (Concordius being the other candidate) and Marcus is called in by Libianus to solve the case before the potentially inflammatory Latin Festival. What results is Marcus having to understand the complex relationships between a corona civis decorated ex-centurion Spurius, his son-in-law Rufinius, the aedile Ruso, the property dealer Decidius and the anti-Roman Flacchus. Thow in a particularly nasty butcher, Euxperius and the Alban Brotherhood and you develop a severe case of things escalating out of control.
Marcus’ habitual case-sleuthing with Perilla drops off compared the the last two novels and this is no bad thing though he manages to replace it somewhat with Marcia Fulvina’s thoughts, the elderly aunt of the current senior consul, Persicus, the latter to whom Wishart approportions buffoon-esque tendencies.
There are multiple plot threads running through Wishart’s latest but he manages to tie them all in neatly and plausibly, sending us down many dead ends. A case of many motives for the first murder but no realistic suspect being the culprits. The characterisation is delightful, from the Boudicca-esque Sulpicia, to the inexperienced but knowledgeable Flacchus, to the dour old veteran Spurius and the action moves along at a good clip until Marcus eventually works out the threads, discovers the plot and in the final denouement in an abandoned villa, confronts the culprits and barely escapes with his life. Humor abounds, no more so than when Marcus indulges in a wine-tasting competition – Wishart has built him up to be somewhat of a connoisseur (without degenerating to drunkenness) over the preceding episodes – and loses to his ovine relative.
The two preceding offerings – ‘Last Rites’ and ‘White Murder’ had slipped slightly compared to the previous but Wishart has served another fine offering with this current book. It is not often you find a series where you want the adventures to continue for a very long time. Lindsey Davis’ Falco is one, Saylor’s Gordianus another….you must add Wishart’s Corvinus to those two peers for ‘A Vote for Murder’ further proves Marcus Corvinus’ deserved place in the Roman Murder Mystery genre.
I confess that when I saw the latest Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus mystery from David Wishart I didn’t bother reading the jacket. Just picked it up, paid for it and located the nearest bench.
Never a mistake with a Corvinus mystery and so this one proved.
Marcus’ twelfth adventure finds us in 35A.D in his house struggling with his accounts. The arrival of the consular Lucius Vitellius, described as a `homing hippo’ and a subsequent trip to the Palatine to meet one Isidorus means that our wise-cracking sleuth finds himself on the receiving end of an assignment from no less than the Wart himself. The brief? To discover who has attempted to murder the sixty year old Roman backed heir to Great King of Parthia, Phraates.
After pacifing the lamprey dishing Meton and the ever bookish Perilla, Marcus prompts goes to a diplomatic dinner with Vitellius, hosted by Phraates for the Parthian delegation. There we meet a list of people all of whom have motivation: Osroes, the Magian – an anti-Greek Parthian, Zariades – an unctuous Parthian courtier, Callion – a Seleucid Greek, Peucestas – a military eunuch, Tiridates – Phraates son, and Mithridates – the particularly nasty younger brother of the King of Iberia and future King of Armenia.
Promptly making an enemy of Mithridates and causing a diplomatic incident, just to protect the virtue of a dancer, lands Marcus in immediate hot water ending up with a beating in a Tuscan Way alley. Still, with the reckless abandon and grim determination that marks our sleuthing hero he sets off into the Parthian underworld of Rome. Just as well as Zariades ends up with his throat cut. A body, but not the expected one.
Conversations with Phraates, investigations into The old Batchelors and Mano’s, plus an ever growing threat from Mithradates means that Marcus has to put his family on the line again.
The mystery unfolds as Marcus moves from conversation to conversation, uncovering a web of deceit from his `paymasters’ that infuriates him but reveals a lot about multiple motives and secret dealings in the Roman/Parthian underworld until he finally realises that the `murder’ wasn’t a murder at all.
Marcus rapidly escalates his way through Nicanor, pepper merchants, Parthian and Syrian spice trading, Ostian knife gangs, the Three Graces brothel and many more as he threatens, bribes and coaxes information out of everyone to reveal a plot so complex and clever that to guess the culprits and motives from the outset would be blind luck. Oh, and he solves the mystery of the missing lampreys and manages to put one over Meton, who comes across like a Roman Ramsey at times.
David Wishart has settled down with his irreverant Corvinus mysteries and anyone who likes the overly carefree Claudia Seferius of Marilyn Todd will finds an equally affable character in Corvinus whose straight talking, justice loving sleuth cuts through Rome with an alacrity that is hard to put down.
David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series has developed well. However this latest offering is a little formulaic. There is a tendancy for Marcus to spend a day sleuthing and then to summarise what he’s learnt to Perilla – you get the mild impression it’s to ensure the reader hasn’t missed anything.
The premise of this installment – a murder of the White’s chariot first team Leader, Pegasus, right under Marcus’ nose – is to enter the murky underworld of Rome’s Circus Maximus, chariot racing, racing-throwing and the factions of Green, Red and Blue, White. Wishart creates a credible picture of life at the races, building a suitable tight-lipped and close-bunched set of teams and fans and Corvinus has to pick his way through lot to establish motive. Everyone has one, of course, and it appears that for all the expressions of closed doors each team is more closely interwoven than would be evident at first glance.
Glee clubs, personal feuds, elopement and Bathyllus’ love-sick state of mind all provide another fun outing in Marcus Corvinus’ Rome.
It is written as well as ever. We are, by now, very comfortable with the main characters, yet the plot and the denouement are, perhaps, not as complex as they could be ; with the result the strong suspicions of who the culprit(s) is/are from the opening chapters end up being confirmed. So, not Marcus’ best outing, but, as a series, long may Corvinus continue…