Year of Confusion (SPQR XIII)
I’ve always liked JMR ever since “The King’s Gambit” all those years ago. Even the seven year gap between the first two and the subsequent eleven did not deter. Here was an author thousands of miles away from the likes of Lindsey Davis with a similar brilliant idea for a series. Decius Caecilius Metellus, the cynical, neutral senator in republican Rome has proven as enduring a sleuth as Marcus Didius Falco.
Episode XIII arrives and the inevitable retelling of events preceding Caesar’s murder comes to the author. It is unavoidable for any writer who features Gaius Julius Caesar. Saylor, McCullough and more – all have had to navigate the retelling of a story best immortalised by Shakespeare. The events are not what matter, simply how the author handles the delicate nature of writing what has been written so many times before. JMR chooses to focus on astronomy and astrology, delving deep into the Roman senatorial fear of soothsayers, fortune tellers and occult charlatanry. The nobles ladies of Rome – Servilia and Fulvia heading the list – are spending their bored pseudo-political lives seeking the future and they are ripe for bamboozling by the exotic, eastern temptress, Ashthuva. Throw in Cleopatra with her arrow-firing pygmies and there’s bound to be a murder or three.
So there is…Polasser, Postumius, Demades all end up meeting Hades/Pluto in a manner that has poor old Asklepiodes muttering into his beard. A new method of unarmed killing has arrived in Rome and it is uncertain if it is due to a cross country runner not seen since the likes of Pheidippides – at least, according to the badly winded Hermes whom Decius encourages to engage the suspect in hot pursuit. Constant in the background of the narration is Caesar’s ascent into neo-imperialism, his grandstanding in the Senate in front of the Parthian ambassador, Archelaus, and a pointed opening directive to Decius to find out who has been murdering astrologers.
Off he trots, claiming to be independent – really Decius is as much of a Caesarian lackey as the rest of them – with Hermes at his side to unravel the exotic enigma of a serial murderer in the twisted streets of Rome. As usual we end up in a cracking denouement at a party that Trimalchio would have been proud of.
JMR is erudite, his prose style effortless flowing with enough engagement to keep the pages turning. Decius and Julia calmly tease and puzzle out facts whilst all around them descend into madness. There is a touch of buffoonery amongst the assorted cast, or perhaps JMR is stressing the Cynic attitude of our sleuth. Compared to Davis, JMR lacks the descriptive finesse of Rome – there is little in the way of scene setting in the city other than dark strolls into the tawdry underlife of the Roman mob – but his ability to build a growing sense of mystery is expertly delivered. The only oddity about the book is actually the jacket. Whilst no one wants to give out a spoiler I find it extremely strange that Minotaur Books choose to say “Decius figures out the fortune-teller’s scam and also exposes the foreign astrologer who carried out these murders…” on the rear.
Oh, so the killer is one of the foreign astrologers in the book then? Well that narrows it down to about..er..two people then.
Indeed most odd. Still, let that not detract. As Callista or Julia might say, why would the stars predict our future? After all, what have we ever done for them?
I look forward to JMR’s firmament glittering for many years to come.
Oracle of the Dead (SPQR XII)
Somehow I managed to read book XIII before this, but it did prove that is isn’t entirely necessary to read the Metellus novels in sequence. JMR delivers another cracking read with Decius’ tenure as praetor peregrinus leading him to travel down to Baiae in order to preside over cases involving non-Romans. He’s barely there a few seconds when someone starts a fracas between the cult of Hecate and the Apollonian temple priests resulting in the latter either being tossed into the river “Styx” – a tourist attraction – or neatly laid out in hidden crypts for aspiring forensic sleuths to casually pore over. Whilst Caesar is the talk of the Roman Senate as he ventures towards the Rubicon, Decius has his own stream to leap over as he tries to figure out the history of cults and temples in this normally affluent holiday-spot.
Throughout, Decius exudes an exasperation at having to deal with knee-jerking aggrandisement as everyone points the metaphorical finger at everyone else whilst trying to stay cool in the blistering heat. Julia aids him immeasurably as she is fully aware of the prevalence of cults and soothsayers abounding in the countryside – a thread continued in SPQR XIII – because our murderer(s) start picking off potential witnesses one by one. Side trips to Stabiae means Decius is forced to glean most of his information at the trinculum of various wealthy Romans, who later wind up dead. Trouble is, sifting through after-dinner conversations where people have their own power games to play and the truth is safely hidden behind an inch thick layer of mendacity, means that whilst we are vaguely aware of why this is happening, to pinpoint actual culprits is an entirely different matter. Decius has another problem in that he’s under a constant harangue by pseudo-haruspices or bored Roman aristocrats who then get themselves killed. As Decius bemoans “legality is about the last thing I expect to encounter in this Gordian knot of a case”.
Still, the denouement befits a praetor peregrinus leaving Decius happy to saunter off to Sicily and this reader satisfied at the formula of JMR – neaty, tidy, puzzling cases with a likeable sleuth and a motley supporting cast.
There is one aspect of this novel that has grated slightly. It is the first time I’ve ever really picked up on the jacket but this was difficult to ignore. The painting on the front of this version is pretty poor. Shadows seem to imply the sun is in three different places and the lack of depth from the Temple steps to the cliffs is just wrong. There is no sense of perspective to the bay below. I’m no artist, so it’s far better than anything I could produce, but it’s pretty poor from a professional. Don’t let that stop you buying the book though; it’s just JMR needs to have a word with the artist if she’s going to do another cover.
Under Vesuvius (SPQR XI)
<review to come>
A Point of Law (SPQR X)
<review to come>
The Princess and the Pirate (SPQR IX)
SPQR IX commences just after Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger’s aedile adventures with dodgy tradesmen with our senatorial sleuth setting off for Cyprus under a commission from the Senate to mop up an irritating case of piracy with minimal resources. With a growing air of authority our purple striper boards ship for the Mediterranean island with the grown up and ever faithful Hermes at his side and wife, Julia, making a more sedate journey with Titus Annius Milo a few weeks behind.
Freed from marital constraints, Decius makes the most of this change of scenery by arriving and, in true Julian style, swiftly commandeers three water laden hulks and a motley crew of ex-pirates and legionaries to sail his flotilla. After recruiting the fearsome Ariston to aid him in his chase he also deals with the governor, Silvanus, who eventually ends up murdered by being forced to choke to death on incense. There is also the exiled Gabinius whose imperium is non-existent but personal authority is immense. In addition to these two senior Roman officials, we are introduced to a supporting list of suspects with the poet Alpheus and the four representatives of the powerful Equites factions, Marcus Junius Brutus of the Wine Merchants, Mamercus Sulpicius Naso of the Grain Exporters, Decimus Antonius of the Metal Brokers, and Malachi Josepides of the Textile Importers. Prominently in the cast is Sergilius Nobilior, chief of the Banker’s Association and his voluptuous and somewhat promiscuous wife, Flavia.
However, the real task for Decius is to hunt down the pirate Spurius and he is given some unwanted assistance by the teenage Cleopatra who happens to be visiting Cyprus. Her political astuteness and immense resources coupled with girlish enthusiasm prove boon and bane to our hero as he finds himself on the receiving end of caulking sabotage, night espionage trips, attempted assassinations and insistent women before Julia and Milo turn up in good time to lend a much needed hand as he finally discovers who is behind the piracy, Silvanus’ murder and a vast trading conspiracy.
Decius steps out of his trip to Cyprus with his auctoritas improved. He is no Julius Caesar (in fact he’s delighted to make the acquaintance of an Ethiopian prince who’s never heard of the great man) but his cogitative sleuthing makes him stand out amongst the senatorial crowd. Geniunely likable, always affable, hard but fair his results speak for themselves.
JMR’s creation continues to improve and the SPQR series is vastly superior to the somewhat pulpy Children of Rome novels. Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger ranks right up there with Gordianus the Finder, Marcus Didius Falco and Marcus Valerius Corvinus and JMR should continue to write about him for as long as he can.
The River God’s Vengeance (SPQR VIII)
Decius Quintus Caecilius Metellus is back for his eighth installment and JMR doesn’t disappoint.
It’s the interregnum of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica and our erstwhile hero is three months into his first aedileship having returned from Gaul from his previous outing with Julius Caesar. Being responsible for the maintenance of Rome’s public buildings and highways he finds himself picking over the rubble of a collapsed insula, while some astute observations from Hermes, his irreverent personal slave, leads him to commence an investigation of a shoddy construction business that has claimed the lives of the slaves Galatea and Antaeus and over two hundred more inhabitants. And all this whilst he is preparing his own costly munera in order to fulfill his political ambition.
As ever, the culprits are somewhat higher up the political ladder than he initially thinks and several warnings from people including his own paterfamilias do not deter our sleuth with a reputation for intractable honesty from launching into a full investigation. Both he and Hermes work their way through dishonest construction foremen, previous aediles, censors, brothels, the Cloaca Maxima and the Forum before uncovering a crime of passion that was merely a pointer to a greater corruption. In the end the initial deaths were some what justified and Decius neatly sinks two great men during an eventful four days, during which the Tiber river floods ensuring, as Marcius Porcius Cato so neatly concludes: “the finest manifestation of divine will in my lifetime”.
As ever there are an assortment of colourful characters including Caninus, Marcus Aemilius Scauras, Justus, Harmodias, Lucilius, Folius and Messala. With him are the Greek physician Asklepiodes and his wife Julia, niece of Caesar.
The cast move around Decius with slow inexorability as his Socratic sleuthing takes him into the mire of truth in a manner that is perfect to read. JMR took a long break after the opening novel of the SPQR series but his return in recent novels has proven a major success in the world of the ancient murder mystery. Whilst he showed the likes of Saylor and Davis what to do all those years ago, his newest efforts are right up their with them. Any fan of the genre must read and own JMR’s SPQR series and I eagerly look forward to `The Princess and the Pirates’.
The Tribune’s Curse (SPQR VII)
<review to come>
Nobody Loves a Centurion (SPQR VI)
There was a substantial gap in the writing time of the SPQR series and JMR returns with another installation that sees our erstwhile hero once more stepping outside Rome. In this case, he is heading to Gaul to serve under Caesar as military tribune in his confrontation with the Helvetii.
What follows is an enjoyable march through a legionary camp (JMR has clearly done some extensive research into the facts of a Roman army camp as the detail closely match historical findings) as the Primus Pilus Titius Vinius is murdered and the obvious suspects aren’t so guilty to the eye of Decius.
This neatly sets the scene for him to investigate another murder that encompasses more than we intially are led to believe, but this time he is under pressure to find the guilty party before Caesar returns. With aplomb, he picks his way through the clues and deals with a variety of characters before the denouement that is as subtle as it is brilliant.
SPQR VI is an excellent addition to the series and is highly recommended.
Saturnalia (SPQR V)
<review to come>
The Temple of the Muses (SPQR IV)
SPQR IV is JMR’s best offering of Decius Metellus the Younger. Having so often referred to circumstance or snooping imposed periods of exile we finally get to see how well Decius travels.
And the result is as well as Todd’s Claudia Seferius and better than Davis’ Didius Falco.
This installment finds our erstwhile hero appearing as a Roman diplomat at Alexandria, in the Egyptian province. Ably supported by his slave Hermes and the great physician character, Asklepodies he is quickly joined by his now-confirmed betrothed Julia Minor and the female half of Sulla’s twin children, Fausta.
As Decius and Julia wryly note towards the end, Decius gets tangled in a web of murder simply because it is, as Ptolemy the Flute-Player notes, his hobby. The murder, mayhem and rioting that he brings as part of his investigatory technique disrupts an entire city to the point that his denouement and great service to the Roman state is swiftly followed by him being tossed on the nearest ship to Rhodes. Never mind.
No venture into Alexandria can occur without philosophical ramblings (Decius’ dry comments on the death of Archimedes to Antigone’s is extremely humorous) and they abound here in plenty, beginning with the death of the mathematician turned secret mechanics-dabbler Iphicrates.
The only thing that slightly disappoints and echoes the previous novel, is that the ‘uncovering’ is always lame. In this case the three culprits get together, write everything down and neatly recount everything they’ve done to the listening Decius. These people deserve to be caught if that’s the case. You get the feeling JMR hadn’t quite yet mastered the art of the murder mystery denouement in the same vein as that master of such – Agatha Christie.
Nevertheless, aside from a poor murder mystery ending, the rest of the tale is extremely good and the dry sardonic innocence of Decius ‘snooping’ is now firmly established making this tale very humorous.
The Sacrilege (SPQR III)
This one is the best so far of the series. Apart from the author’s familiarity with his main character, Decius, the supporting ensemble are all finely meshed and their personalities are comfortable to the reader. The continuing feud between Clodius and Decius makes for fine entertainment. The introduction of the slave Hermes is with a mildly irritating character, but, given he is in the fourth installment it is interesting to see how he will develop. JMR gives us a more stable influence on Decius’ live with the daughter of Lucius Julius Caesar ‘joining’ forces but being tee-d up to be Decius’ betrothal.
The plot centers around Clodius’ infamous disruption of the Bona Dea rites in 62BC, and this time knowledge of the period doesn’t impact on figuring out the murders. In all actuality, the murders are irrelevant and JMR hardly bothers to clear them up, Decius just mentally confirming his own theory as the facts. It spirals off into an interesting and, perhaps, not unbelievable, early view on the coming triumvirate. All the time JMR is quick to downplay and perhaps poke fun at the staid glorification of ancient Roman legends such as Caesar. For example Decius’ hilarity at Caesar’s famous remark about his wife Pompeia’s non-complicity. It tends to humanise these historical figures.
JMR’s novels are ‘published’ as Roman murder mysteries but they are so much more than that. A satirical look at a fascinating period of history (much echoed by Steven Saylor), his astute (and, in this installment, being given license for hubris) hero bounces through ancient Rome in a delightfully irreverent manner in his quest to know the facts about murders and the general shadowy political dealings of Republican Rome.
The Catiline Conspiracy (SPQR II)
Having read two of the JMR novels now I’m hoping a trend doesn’t emerge having bought the other four as well. The trend is this:
If you know anything about this period of history then the plot is nothing new.
The Catiline Conspiracy is precisely that – an historical piece of fiction that follows the historical version of events. In that case this is an excellent piece of fiction, but it has the detrimental effect of meaning it’s not a particularly gripping whodunnit as you know exactly what’s going to happen.
Both books have had a beautiful femme fatale, and in this case the murders aren’t really relevant at all to the rest of the novel – hence the ‘murder mystery’ tag isn’t really applicable here. Other than that it is a well written and engrossing piece of historical fiction. The developing enmity between Clodius and Decius is fast becoming the interesting bit in the series and the entire incident with the October Horse is the best section throughout. A good set of supporting actors makes this very readable. If you want a good murder mystery, this isn’t it. If you want a good fictional account of the Catiline Conspiracy, this is it.
The King’s Gambit (SPQR I)
The ancient Rome murder mystery is a relatively new genre – and JMR could be held as its primary mover, so to compare it to Saylor, Davis or Todd is perhaps a little unfair. However it does stand up well. Having read this one I’ve promptly ordered the other five.
Well characterized, well plotted the opening mystery for the senator’s son, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, skips neatly through the period around 70BC with some aplomb. His choice of a somewhat ‘modern’ (in his attitudes) young Roman of patrician nobility with various seedier supporting characters and faithful slaves has been echoed in later authors’ attempts at the sub genre. It clearly works.
Given knowledge of the actual events around this time, my review is biased towards reviewing the author’s depiction of Rome and actual historical characters and it falls down slightly on this point.
Two things lead fairly quickly to who dunnit:
1)If you have a good knowledge of the period then it is fairly clear what’s going on as JMR follows historical fact – admirably
2)A lack of suspects points to the culprit.
JMR’s depiction of both Clodia/Claudia and Clodius is OK, again, given knowledge of the reality of what both will become you leave feeling their depiction isn’t perhaps quite true. Both Crassus and Pompey exhibit imperial traits; again, doesn’t quite fit in with Republican Rome and a view of a younger Caesar and Cicero is really setting us up for later novels – given the titles of those later novels.
All in all, well worth reading. I think that those who know the history of the period in some detail will view (and review) this offering in a different light to those who have not. But this is a highly recommended Roman murder mystery. I suspect it will get better and better with each installment.