Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (December 21, 2010)
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Reviewed by Alex Neville
This is the fourth book in Ruth Downie’s Ruso Roman mystery series. In the first book Ruso was a Roman army medicus who got drawn into solving a crime. On the way, he managed to acquire a sullen British slave girl called Tilla.
By book four, Ruso is out of the army due in part to injury, but also because his contract has finished. However, he now has quite a reputation for solving crimes. Romance has blossomed and he has married Tilla. He is also now in possession of a goodly quantity of nice Samian crockery, but has no house to store it in and. He is volunteered by a friend to help the Procurator’s office investigate the disappearance of a large sum of tax money. It was being brought to Londonium from the town of Verulamium. The men tasked with delivering the money have also gone missing. Soon Ruso is hot on the trail, which leads to peril not just for himself, but for Tilla as well.
When I read the first in the series, I was interested, though not enough to actively chase up the sequels. The book was well written, but there was the sneaking suspicion that it might be jumping on the fashionable Roman historical mystery bandwagon. But this is not true. By the fourth book in the series, the writing is stronger than the first, and the story more compelling. Time has lent richness to the series and the lead characters have become more vivid. The Ruso series is firmly anchored in the Roman provinces. The lead character comes from Gaul, and is somehow – perhaps because of British Tilla—now attached to Britannia.
Downie’s depth of research is impressive, but she does not bury the reader under detail, or let it get in the way of telling the story. The tale grows out of something that could easily have happened in early 2nd century Roman Britain – the theft of taxes. This allows the reader to see the workings of the Procurator’s office, which was very much the civil service wing of the Roman administration. The Assistant Procurator is a rather young, short-sighted chap, who has only got the job due to family connections. He is thrilled by any opportunity to get out of the office, but also very earnest about his project to survey the milestones in the province, as ordered by Emperor Hadrian.
There’s plenty of wry humour, with the citizens of Verulamium happy to have their reputation of being the town that always pays its taxes on time – they want to be as Roman as the Romans. Through this Downie illustrates Tacitus’ observation that the Britons were enslaved by the lures of Roman civilization (Agricola, Chapter 21). However, at heart, the council members are noisy and volatile, and at one point Ruso reckons that British could not be accused of being boring. There are some amusing north-south comments: Tilla is from the north of the province, so finds the southerners attitudes rather odd at times, and vice versa. This neatly taps into present day Britain, so that a British reader at least can smile at the joke.
Downie’s characterisations are excellent, allowing the players to stand out in the mind’s eye. There are quite a few people in the book, and there is a handy character-listing at the front of the book. The story is told in third person from two views – that of Ruso himself and of Tilla, who has a few secrets she feels she needs to hide from her husband. The differing viewpoints are very effective, particularly when a worried Ruso does not know the location of his wife, but the reader does.
Overall, there is much pleasing detail in this book. As with most historical fiction set in this era, not everything is known about the workings of the province. But Downie sure-footedly makes the whole story very plausible and constantly intriguing.
Alex Neville is an archaeologist turned librarian and reads lots of historical fiction.