The Vestal Vanishes
“…whatever Lavinius might or might not know, one cannot keep this kind of secret from the gods.”
It is these words, spoken by Secunda in a poor farmstead that prove the key to Rosemary Rowe’s theme in this twelfth Libertus mystery.
The story revolves around the impending marriage of Publius Martinus at the end of an auspicious sacrifice in Glevum to the once-Vestal Virgin, Audelia. Yet, before the feasting and Games can commence, Libertus is hurriedly summoned to his patron’s side to investigate the disappearance of the bride-to-be on the road from Corinium. Libertus is given no time to go home and explain his commission but is sent off with a suspect raedarius – in the same carriage that was to bring the missing Vestal and her niece, Lavinia, to Glevum – to retrace the steps of the fateful journey and discover the whereabouts of the Vestal. Along the way he discovers complicity and duplicity at hostels, farms, amongst slaves and those charged with the welfare of others until, finally, he uncovers the mystery of a very sad little girl and a woman who desires nothing more than a chance to live her life as she chooses away from both the critical eye of a paterfamilias who would deal nefariously with her future and the intransigent ethics of Roman propriety.
I have to say that Rowe delivers a tidy mystery. The reader is taken sweetly along on the journey that is Libertus mind as he both painstakingly looks for the inevitable clues that come up in his discussions with people and understands the fallibility of relationships that point to motive. Matters are never random, the culprit(s) are always found within three degrees of the victim and superstitious fear is a powerful tool that creates the situations that Rowe sketches us. If you wanted comparable authors, then Lindsay Davis or David Wishart are the obvious choices. Rowe is more serious in her writing, Libertus an older man who reluctantly sleuths through thinking, rather than the heady action of Falco or the casual levity of Corvinus, than these other two authors, but no less enjoyable for it.
Couple of odd spelling moments which are probably Kindle related but stand out as the editing of these books is normally excellent. One example is ‘torc’ is spelt “torque” – round about 4% of the way into the Kindle. It’s the third time I’ve seen that particular mistake on Kindle. Different authors for each time.
If you wish to enjoy a light read, a well constructed narrative, enough twists and clues to keep you interested, a character who is amiable if not enjoyable, then I’d recommend Rowe. I note that the Libertus novels have lessened in frequency in recent years. Is that a sign that the author is coming to a natural end for her British character? If it is, then, if you like Falco, I’d suggest you read these whilst you can.
A Coin for the Ferryman
This Libertus mystery left me bamboozled completely, lost in a mire of possibility, half-baked guesses, and little concrete facts. That’s not to say its a poor book. Quite the opposite, it’s actually nice to read an author for such a long time yet still be confounded. Murder mystery authors do become like favourite crossword compilers…you get to know how they think, the clues and mis-clues they throw out. Technically, it’s quite difficult to write these types of novels for a recurring audience because patterns of blood emerge, formulas reappear and you find the novel simply degenerates into how rapidly you can confirm what you’ve already worked out.
But…for this Libertus novel, this isn’t the case as Rowe loses us in a fog of “what the heck?”. And, to boot, even kills off a couple of supporting characters whom have been near-present to date in the series. What I also like about the series is the underlying humming along of Libertus’ family life. The little episodes and check-ins we get are not necessarily vital to the mystery, but are key to the story of our pavement maker.
This novel commences with the official liberation of Junio, his impending nuptials with Cilla, and their new roundhouse. It’s the latter that triggers the mystery, what with the unfortunate corpse being found on the land that is being cleared. Bad luck indeed, and doubly so given it has occurred on the Lemuria – the Roman Festival of the Dead. As the land belong to Marcus, Libertus mega-rich patron, the body gets taken to the villa where the patron is preparing for a trip to Rome at the invitation of Governor Pertinax; there he not only needs to try and work out the identity of a body that a murderer has made a lot of effort to conceal, but also has to delicately navigate the social rudeness of Marcus’ snobbish cosuin Lucius, a man both looking out for unusual circus acts to send to Rome for the Emperor’s amusement and a man with an thoroughly unpleasant character.
I can’t really say more about the plot as a curve ball is lobbed our way by Rowe in the opening three chapters, but suffice it to say the amount of misdirection that goes on here is remarkable. In fact Libertus spends most of the novel trying to work out the sequence of events when he’s confronted by gold aureus, chopped hair, bashed in faces, poison, runaways, carts, and a clever culprit. Woven into this is a rather amusing process of him resettling his new slaves who are young, energetic, but rather inclined to acting without thinking – all of which nearly lands our hero sleuth in hot water in Glevum when he’s accused of thievery by proxy.
A great installment by Rowe, this one. I was befuddled by it, which is exactly what I want to be until the Agatha Christie-esque denouement at a dinner party. All rather tidy, as the great author herself would likely say.
A Roman Ransom
After the trite last offering from Rowe she has bounced back with a kidnapping and series of ransom demands in “Libertus 8” that demands that proves her ability to produce a classic Romano-British whodunit. Opening with Libertus recovering from his potential deathbed we find him cracking open an ill eyelid to find his anxious patron, Marcus Septimus, hovering over him having contracted one of Britain’s finest medicus’, Philades, to nurse him back to health. This case of largesse on his patron’s part is not without cost, however, as his encouraged recovery is in order to help Marcus find out who has kidnapped his wife, Julia, and baby son, Marcellinus.
The immediate appearance of a ransom note and the disappearance of Myrna, the wet-nurse has our aged sleuth lobbed into a carrier and hot-footed to Marcus’ villa in order to manage the ensuing events.
However, en route, they are stopped and Marcellinus is returned to Libertus as everyone’s attention is elsewhere. This fortunate event is turned on its head as the medicus’ Philades, turns nasty on Libertus and accuses him as having a hand in the kidnapping, reeling off one persuasive argument after another to Marcus to convince him that Libertus has a case to answer.
After Gwellia also disappears and Myrna is found murdered the circumstantial evidence on Libertus begins to stack up. He is given two days to clear his name and spends much of it interviewing the personal slaves of Julia ascertaining a classic case of people seeing what they expect to see.
Having unraveled a tale of family intrigue and swapped babies, shaky inheritances and callous murder he eventually saves Julia, uncovers a medical tale of slavery and paranoia and restores his patron’s faith in him. However, our faith in Marcus has taken a severe dent as he is all to ready to believe Libertus could turn on him and cause him personal grief with zero motive.
Rowe’s Libertus series is a delightful addition to the Roman sleuth genre with the kind of novels you go through in a lazy haze on a sunny afternoon post-Countdown.It is lightweight, but after the hard-hitting Saylor and humorous Davies, this is a refreshing easy on the eyes read that fits in nicely with the rest.
Enemies of the Empire
The seventh Libertus mystery from Rosemary Rowe has our aged sleuth paying a visit to Venta Silurium as part of his patron’s entourage and promptly getting caught up in a hotbed of insurgency. He only manages to get involved when he sees a man whose funeral he attended earlier that month alive and well in the town’s forum. An inquisitive chase through the town results in him being hopelessly lost, running into the town’s leading madam and then being waylaid by some hot-headed youths who threaten to kill him as a spy of one of the local gangs.
All in all a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After enduring a night in the cells and a farcical trial where he is acquitted, Libertus and Marcus go on a trip into the nearby forest and end up with all their horses stolen, locating the body of the slave Promptillius and encountering a local set of Silurians who suspiciously protest undying love for all things Roman. Once our sleuth manages to sit down for five seconds he realises what is going on with the overly stupid Optio and Lyra, the madam, avoids being poisoned and brings the culprits to justice whilst Marcus chafes at the irritation of being delayed in his journey.
This is quite a weak effort from Rowe in the sense it just trundles amicably along with no real sense of murder thriller. The characters elicit little empathy, just irritation and Libertus is in danger of becoming overly obsequious. A little spine would be useful. He could learn from Cadfael. The series is an enjoyable addition to the ever increasing ancient murder mystery but is lightweight when compared to the likes of Marcus Corvinus, Gordianus the Finder, Metellus the Younger. It is more at a level of Claudia Seferius but lacks a little fire. Enjoyable for the fan of the genre.
The Ghosts of Glevum
The sixth Libertus mystery from Rosemary Rowe plunges us immediately into a difficult situation as Marcus Aurelius Septimus, Libertus? patron, ends up accused of the murder of one corpulent Gaius Praxus, military commander at his own banquet, found dead in the vomitorium. After Governor Pertinax?s departure from Britain, Septimus, Mellitus and Praxus were power sharing until a successor was sent by Commodus. Now Praxus is dead and Mellitus accuses Marcus of his murder. As Libertus? patron is hauled off to jail, Marcus? wife, Julia Delicta, asks him to help his patron and our sleuth disappears home before the avenging Praxus guard, headed by the bullish Bullface, can grab him.
For considerable time, Libertus finds himself on the run as he tries to understand what has happened and get some details from Golbo, the slave boy attending the vomitorium that Marcus inexplicably dismissed just before the murder, before he himself is falsely accused of complicity. This leads to a nightmarish journey into the more unsavoury areas of Glevum as he is kidnapped by a group of beggars and thieves (The Ghosts of Glevum) who sit in mock council to decide his fate. Forced into ?hiring? them to save his own skin, Libertus makes use of Sosso, the leader of the ragtail band, Parva a young prostitute, Cornovacus, a thief, Lercius, an insane thug, Tullio, the riverman, Molendinarius, the firewood-seller and his wife all of whom are under the ?patronage? of Grossus.
His own house burned down, Gwellia and Junio safely in Corfinium and finding Golbo dead enables Libertus, by using these ?Ghosts? who hear everything and can get into anywhere in Glevum, to figure out who the murderer was and deduce the motive behind the apparent treasonous scroll of Marcus that has come to light. Eventually, the facts are teased out and the traitorous ?ghost? comes to light before being killed by his own people. There is no denouement with the culprits as we skip to Marcus? freedom at the end, but are advised the conspirators and murderer have been apprehended.
The previous Libertus offering was weaker than the rest because it cast our sleuthing hero in a light that didn?t match his previous characterisation. This effort returns us to the old Libertus we know though I get the impression that Rowe has unfortunately restricted herself her with this forcing of Libertus into the Glevum underworld. It ensures an intellectual puzzling of the truth using informants rather than any free sleuthing himself and no empathy with the supporting cast is delivered. So, whilst better than the Legatus Affair, not as good as the first five.
The Legatus Mystery
Rowe’s latest Libertus offering – `The Legatus Mystery’- proves the weakest to date. I’m not sure why but the entire effort is somewhat muddied, probably because Rowe allows Libertus to lose the normally cool-headed thought process and end up supernaturally confused and fleeing for his life from an misguided Glevum mob who believe that he’s brought the wrath of the Gods down on them. All of which throws us out of kilter and turns him nearly into an emotional wreck. Very un-Libertus-like.
This fifth installment has our sleuth returning from London with his `wife’ Gwellia, to be ordered to uncover the amazing case of the vanishing corpse from the inner sanctum of the temple as found by its sub-sevir, Meritus. Several others are in the frame, includng the Pontifex, Scribonius, Optimus, a lisping slave named somewhat unkindly by Libertus and Junio as Lithputh (though it does serve its own misleading purpose eventually), Hirsus and Trinculus. However, the plot takes more a case of discovering who the original body was – presumably an unknown missing legate, judging by the recovered ring – rather than concluding there actually was a murder and who the suspects were – and therein lies the key to the entire mystery.
So, we actually get to see Libertus laying a mosaic, tentatively drag the usual adulterous Roman matron in to the script, have some further insights as to Libertus’ new and changing relationships with both Gwellia and Junio, profess our usual irritation with Marcus who is becoming excellent at jumping to ridiculous conclusions whilst being prickly about insinuations of his stupidity by his client and stomp around a poorly portrayed temple before ucocvering the true murder and figuring out whodunnit.
What Rowe is extremely good at it sending the reader down a completely blind alley. When the deouement reveals the culprit(s) you instantly see where the obvious clues were, but she has ingeniously hidden them in plain sight – always the mark of a good murder mystery author. However, as I stated at the very first, this is the weakest to date and I confess I put it aside several times to read other novels before finally finishing. I assume it’s merely a blip as every Roman sleuth has an off day, and that the next installment will be back to the promise offered in the first four.
The Chariots of Calyx
Rowe’s fourth Libertus offering – `The Chariots of Calyx’ – rids us Marcus Aurelius Septimus as Libertus joins governor Pertinax in Londinium as he prepares to embark on his tour of Britannia (first stop Ebroarcum – which is meant as kindly gesture to Libertus, though he now knows Gwellia is not there – but you cannot refuse a governor!). Before it can go ahead, the frumentarius (corn officer) Caius Monnius is found strangled to death with a slave and his new wife, Fulvia suffered a slash to her arm when she was attacked. Pertinax asks Libertus to investigate in case the murder is political and he reluctantly goes to the house to discover a range of colourful characters, most prominent being Annia, the deceased’s mother who lives in an annexe and currently houses Monnius’ ex-wife Lydia and their son, Filius.
The domineering and opinionated Annia is at loggerheads with Fulvia, the young beautiful new wife (incidentally having an affair with the Blues racing charioteer favourite, Fortunatus) and firmly believes the charioteer committed the deed. Into the mix comes the Celt Eppaticus (Rowe has a tendency to display them all as huge red haired barbarians in her novels) whose forced entry to the house demanding a return of some 5000 denarii and subsequent fleeing raises all kinds of questions.
All of which sets up Libertus and his ever faithful sidekick, Junio, to take a trip to Verulamium to track down Fortunatus and for Rowe to exercise her `Ben Hur’ literary reconstruction, which, incidentally, is not badly done at all. What they find is that the charioteer took a dive to ensure race fixing could be done and was, in fact, present in the capital the night of the murder. Returning to Londinium, Libertus finds himself subjected to a brutal torture after foolishly allowing himself to be taken captive when sniffing around the granary warehouses and Fortunatus’ unfinished home by the Blue’s leader, Glaucus. It is only his increasing reputation and perceived respect for him by the Roman infrastructure that ensures he is found before he is murdered. However, the palace slave, Superbus, whom Libertus had instructed to do some spying, is found dead. What turns the tide is when Fulvia is found stabbed to death inside her locked room and Libertus pulls all the characters together (having had Pertinax arrest and deliver both Eppicatus and Fortunatus to the house) for his denouement where the characters manage to provide the rest of the necessary information under the threat of torture. As a result the culprits are uncovered, a political scandal is prevented, and racing corruption uncovered, much to Glaucus’ detriment after the legions catch up with him.
Rowe’s latest is a marvellous effort, combining wit, pace, intrigue and remarkable thought processes from our sleuth. We are now comfortable with Commudus’ Britannic world and the deft obsequiousness that pervades daily life. The characters are comfortable, the assorted episodic cast a delightful jumble all adding to the intrigue and we end with a scene of true emotion as Libertus reaps the reward for all he has done so far. I look forward to the next installment, The Legatus Mystery.
Murder in the Forum
Rowe’s third Libertus offering – `Murder in the Forum’, is a splendidly crafted effort. We are plunged immediately into a difficult situation for Libertus as he is confronted by an overly obnoxious and well connected imperial representative, Lucius Tigidius Perennis Felix, who has swept into Glevum with the apparent intent to marry his plain daughter Phyllidia to Marcus Aurelius Septimus, Libertus’ patron. Unfortunately, continuing straight from the previous novel, Marcus is happily living with Julia Delicta (the ex-wife of the murderd Corfinium decurion, Quintus) several hours away and Libertus is forced to race to `fetch’ him with Felix’s imperious guard and hinted lover, Zetso. Realising the real reason for Felix’s visit, Marcus hastily married Julia before speeding back to the civic banquet thrown (under some duress) for Felix at the house of the dog-loving Gaius Flavius Flaminius.
Having thoroughly set up Felix as a universally hated man (in no means by his brutal murder of Marcus’ envoy) it comes as no surprise we watch dispassionately as he seemingly chokes to death on a nut halfway through the banquet. Immediately Libertus suspects the redhaired Celt masquerading as a noble, Egobarbus, and Zetso, both of whom have gone missing. The suspect hasty departure of Octavius (later found to be the beau of Phyllidia) also has Libertus chasing shadows until he located one of Gaius’ dogs dead of poisoning. There is a moment of splendid parody as Gaius commissions Libertus to construct a mosaic for him dedicated to the fallen canine.
So, Libertus ends up being robbed, we have to deal with 3 suspicious almond smelling phials of poison, Octavius’ `confession’, and Felix’s mysterious dealings with the red haired Celts before we move towards the denoument. There is a neat scene where Libertus has to represent Marcus at the funeral rites to his herald (an action which gives us the methods by which the Celts escaped the city after the murder)
A quick scamper north to a mansio reveals the true state of Egobarbus and Libertus is able to track down Zetso which with much impunity that results in him questioning an imperial seal and being thrown into prison for his troubles, allows him to garner more half truths. As Rowe neatly uses the trick of one character giving further incriminating answers to questions that he is misunderstanding, it means Libertus is able to uncover a far greater conspiracy. It all ends with Libertus up on charges of treason in front of Pertinax with Zetso. The latter panics, reveals all whilst still under the misapprehension that everyone else knows about the greater conspiracy and thus permits Libertus to escape his crime on the basis of saving the emperor.
Rowe’s third installment is excellent. Her writing style has progressed enormously since the first book and the adventures of Libertus and Junio are a delighful addition to the Roman murder mystery genre. Well worth reading….
A Pattern of Blood
Rowe’s second Libertus offering – `A Pattern of Blood’, has our erstwhile sleuth hotfooting it to Corfinium, with Junio in tow, to the townhouse of the decurion, Quintus Ulfinus to investigate the latter’s stabbing after the races, a few days earlier. It just so happened that Libertus was present during the attack having visted Corfinium to investigate the whereabouts of his missing wife, Gwellia.
Just after he turns up with his patron, Marcus Septimus, Quintus is murdered as he lies recuperating. The suspects are immediately limited to his playboy son, Maximillius, his wife, Julia, her ex-husband, Flavius, the aging Lupus, and the medicus, Sollers. Mingled in are the household slaves, Rollo being the most prominent, particularly as he ends up in the latrines the next morning as the second murder.
What Libertus suffers from here (and notes several times in hindsight as he relates the tale) is that he allows personal emotions to lead to poor character judgement which, in turn, clouds him to the blatant facts that are under his nose. A case of not wanting certain people to end up being the culprit(s). It effectively humanises him and we begin to see the flawed human beneath the brilliant mind.
Each of the suspects has good motive and each has good reason to attempt to implicate most of the others as it becomes evident that the murder is part of a power struggle to obtain Quintus’ estate.
Blood is very important to this murder mystery, notably where it is present and on whom. Once Lupus is incarcerated in the `attic’ and Mutuus (having been freed in the reading of Quintus’ will just after Libertus discovers the culprit behind the original stabbing and the subsequent blackmailing) has further denounced his adopted father (Lupus) we have a lengthy denouement as Libertus grills Julia (who is not quite as angelic as the Libertus would have us believe and Sollers in Marcus’ presence. We then move very quickly to find the ambiguous soothsayer in the town whose predictions ultimately come true, though not in the manner our protagonists first assumed they would. Finally we end up with the uncovering of the culprit(s) and Libertus’ lengthy explanations to his patron as to where the clues lay. As with the previous novel the clues are there in the text from the beginning (unlike many other authors who introduce essential facts as we go along) so whilst suspicions are confirmed, the reasoning is a delight to uncover.
The continuing growth of the main characters has added more flesh to the bones given in `The Germanicus Mosaic’. Libertus and Junio are an excellent team, though Marcus is protrayed as an impulsive intellectual buffoon as times. It is hard to see what he brings to the show, other than as a well-placed man to get things actioned for Libertus when he cannot himself. The supporting characters are excellently drawn, their interplay a delight to watch as Libertus teases out the true facts of their relationships..
Overall it is an improvement on the first offering and makes me reach eagerly for the third – Murder in the Forum
The Germanicus Mosaic
Rosemary’s Rowe’s Libertus mystery opener is a neatly styled murder mystery. `The Germanicus Mosaic’ centres around the murder of the ex-centurion Crassus Germanicus who is found under his hypocaust at his villa after a procession at Gleva and the disappearance of his personal slave, part time impersonator, Daedulus. Germanicus is an altogether unsavoury character who delighted in tormenting people (such as beating his barber slave, Paulus, for nicking him during shaving, forcing the tenured slave musician Rufus to both watch and listen as he abused Rufus’ slave love and constantly fining the head slave, Andrethus)
We meet many other assorted characters:the gatekeeper Aulus (an apparently inept informer for Septimus), Germanicus’ brother, the newly christian Lucius and hear about his ex-wife, Regina, amongst others.
All in all we end up with many people at the villa with a motive to murder the man but lacking opportunity. Into the mix steps Longinus Flavius Libertus, a self-deprecating sleuth, ex-Celt who was taken into slavery, then later manumitted and now works as a `pavement’ specialist (had to wince at that as he is really a mosaicist) under the patronage of the senatorial class Marcus Septimus, client of the governor Pertinax. With Libertus is his slave, Junio, and the pair of them set about unravelling the complexities behind the motive in true Holmesque manner – with a fine eye for detail. With Marcus’ constant hasty desire to approportion blame at the first sniff of a linked motive and suspect it falls to Libertus to remove the web that implicates other innocent parties and discover all of the events leading up to the night in question. As he succinctly puts it `one murder leads to another’ as we discover that Regina was also murdered and buried under the very librarium mosaic that Libertus had lain some weeks earlier. So, by the time we figure out the truth we are running fult tilt to catch up with the culprit(s) before another innocent dies and Libertus manages to get the protagonist(s) to ingest the poison meant for him. Poison is a common theme throughout.
As a first offering, Rowe has not done too badly. Admittedly, the plot moves along simply, but the characterisation and sleuthing is excellent. Libertus is constantly under pressure to discern reality and lies lest innocent parties take the blame so the novel is almost screenplay in its delivery. Nevertheless, the promise is there and I have no doubt as Libertus’ continues to sleuth that these mysteries will become a delightful addition to the genre. If you’re a fan of the genre, certainly worth delving into. It is only a pity I did not spot this novel when it came out four years ago.