Fall is fast approaching Memphis, bookies, and it's time to start stocking up on the winter reading material. For those of you who love ancient history but want something more than dry descriptions of broken ruins, here's a choice from one of my Top Ten favorite mystery series'.
SPQR XIII: THE YEAR OF CONFUSION by John Maddox Roberts
This review was written for and first appeared at www.iloveamysterynewsletter.com
Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus has lived through some pretty dangerous times, always managing to steer clear enough of Roman politics to keep his head on his shoulders, while simultaneously enjoying the sumptuous life of a wealthy Roman. He has also achieved some notoriety with his unique investigative methods when it’s actually important to solve a murder or two. (Unlike most murders, which Romans aren’t really worried about) After a stint as Praetor Peregrinas in the last two books in this highly original series, a few years hav epassed and Decius finds himself back in Rome and out of politics. And a good thing, too! Because those missing years have not been quiet ones.
In the last book Pompey the Great made a cameo appearance. In this book Pompey is dead and buried, the loser in the war with Gaius Julius Caesar. Mining history, the author finds a little known tidbit around which to base his book: the re-ordering of the Roman calendar into twelve more or less equal months. It seems that Caesar is intent on many things, not just re-building Rome to his liking, or conquering the Parthian Empire, or even making himself Pharoah, but of re-working time itself. And the Romans aren’t happy about it. The old calendar might not have been very accurate but they were used to it and saw no need to change.
Enter a group of distinguished astronomers and astrologers, brought to Rome by Caesar to develop the new calendar. Enter Decius as Caesar’s pick to bring the new calendar before the public. And enter a murderer, who in no time murders two of the astronomers in a manner unknown to the Romans, who know a great deal about murders. For Decius this is a tricky matter. Not only must he solve two murders, he must do it quickly or risk angering the one man you didn’t want to anger, the Dictator of Rome.
As always, the author knows how to build suspense and give clues, to make the solving of the murders interesting to his readers. But, also as always, the reader gets the impression that finding the killer is secondary to the author’s desire to wander about Rome and its environs, to play with his cast and just plain have fun. Not only does he do that here, but he’s in rare form. This must have been a blast for him to write.
Just the cast alone would have been delicious to move about the chessboard of the case at hand: Julius Caesar, of course, Decius’ old commander from Gaul; Cleopatra (yes, THAT Cleopatra, who really was in Rome that year); Marcus Antonius and his scheming patrician wife Fulvia; Caesar’s old bed-mate, Servilia; his niece, Atia (and her young son and future emperor, Octavian); Crassus, Brutus, you name them, if they were famous during that last year of Caesar’s reign they’re probably here.
The real star, though, is Rome itself. The author skillfully interweaves daily life in ancient Rome so successfully that it’s almost as if the reader were there. He has obviously done his homework. For example, the old Senate meeting place, the Curia, still stands today, so when Decius eats at a tavern near there the mind’s eye can actually grasp the image using ruins that still exist. It’s verisimilitude, with a vengeance. All in all SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion stands as being at least as good as anything else in the series, and that’s saying something.If we are grading these books, give this one the A and maybe the '+', too.