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Somehow, Ruth Downie has managed to publish three detective novels set in Roman times without my noticing them. Oh well—the fourth in the series, Caveat Emptor, continues the adventures of physician (or “medicus,” to use the Latin term) Gaius Petreius Ruso, previously established in Medicus, Terra Incognita, and Persona Non Grata. If this latest installment is any indication of the series as a whole, I just may have to go out and buy the first three books.
Ruso is newly returned to Britain at the start of this latest story. In the Roman-founded city of Londinium, he quickly finds himself ensnared in a mystery. (Despite being a doctor by training, it is Ruso’s uncanny knack as a detective, or “investigator”, that makes him the hero of this series.) Ruso is hoping that his old friend Valens will be able to set him up with some kind of employment, but instead of medical work, Ruso is charged with investigating the disappearance of a tax collector names Aspers. A previously reliable Roman citizen in charge of transporting monies levied from the town of Cavallanus, Aspers has mysteriously vanished. So has his brother. Oh—and so have several thousand dinerii in tax money collected from the honest, hardworking, but not exactly thrilled-by-the-occupation citizens of Cavallanus.
Then as now, tax collectors were not the most popular of citizens, and rumors abound as to what might have happened to Aspers and his brother. They may have simply taken the money and run. Or they might have been killed and robbed, by any number of competing interests. Or they might have stolen the money, and then been robbed and killed in turn. Or they might have gone into hiding for reasons unknown. The possibilities are numerous, and the clues are few.
Ruso, alas, has no interest in any of this—he has come to Britain in hopes of settling with his wife Tilla, a Briton from the north, and as such viewed with suspicion both by the Roman rank and file and the Britons of the south. Ruso and Tilla hope to establish a home and perhaps start a family, but Ruso’s situation is complicated by debts owed to his friend Valens, to his former employer Metellus, and to the missing man’s lover.
Red-haired Canna is a fiesty and outspoken woman reputed to be a descendent of Boudica herself, and she is adamant about her lover’s innocence. Tilla concurs. Everyone else is convinced of his guilt. Ruso, caught in the middle, hopes for the best and tries to get through the investigation as quickly as possible. Canna is also hugely pregnant, and her condition binds her that much closer to Tilla. The two women form a friendship, further complicating Ruso’s investigations.
There are, naturally, complications and revelations aplenty in the course of the novel’s 300-odd pages, and more than one “uh-oh” moment as Ruso does his best to navigate an increasingly intricate web of loyalties, betrayals, curses, blackmail and debt. But to give away any of that would be to spoil much of what is so delicious about the plot—which is, as in many whodunits, the most compelling element of the story.
This isn’t to say that it’s the only compelling element. One of Downie’s great strengths is her ability to evoke the historical milieu of Roman Britain—an uneasy land under occupation, some generations removed from the last great uprising against the occupiers but nonetheless a tense, forbidding place. Historical detail appears precise and accurate, and distinctions of class and caste all feel right. Canna and Tilla, despite being strong and opinionated characters with well developed minds, are nonetheless limited by their roles as women in what were extremely male-dominated societies. By the same token, noble-born Romans are unlikely to mix with commoners from either background. All this is deftly portrayed without a great deal of exposition, but with enough consistency to render it easily believable.
Downie has a knack for a compelling phrase, and her description of character, both physical and psychological, is often nicely observed. The novel opens with a memorable description of Canna, “Six feet tall, red hair in a mass of rats’ tails, and a pregnant belly that bulged at him like an accusation.” Later, a newborn baby’s “squashed features held an expression of puzzlement, as if he would work out what had just happened to him if he lay quietly and thought about it for long enough.” Another character is “a round-shouldered optimist who seemed to think that combing the remains of his hair forward would hide its retreat underneath.”
Ultimately, it’s such well-observed details that bring this ancient world to life for the reader. Once enmeshed in such details, the intricacies of the plot can take hold, and the outcome will matter, because the characters are familiar enough to evoke recognition. Jealousy, greed, lust, kindness, sacrifice—all are present in abundance. Downie’s writing is smooth and entertaining, but it also serves to remind us of how much the past serves as a distant mirror of our own reality.
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