Sunday, August 22, 2010

Murder in Ancient Rome

In the debut novel Roman Games by Bruce Macbain, Pliny the Younger, a somewhat straitlaced Senator and expert probate lawyer, is ordered by the Emperor Domitian (the last of the Flavian dynasty and the nemesis of Lindsey Davis's detective Falco) to solve a locked-door murder of a hated informer. While making his bumbling way toward discovering the culprit and how the deed was accomplished, he uncovers a lot more going on than he really wants to know.

Roman Games is well-written with a good plot and well-developed, multi-layered characters and contains no anachronisms of which I was aware. It falls somewhere between Roberts's SPQR mysteries and Saylor's Gordianus series in terms of seriousness and well-researched historical detail. I haven't read a lot about the reign of Domitian, so Roman Games was interesting for that reason too.

I found the protagonist Pliny to be a bit tiresome, what with his seemingly unrelenting naivete, his slight pomposity and an insufferably proper attitude, though he was certainly a decent man.  I also found him a bit unlikeable (for one thing, he treated his pregnant wife of FOURTEEN like, well, a child ~ a lovable one but a child nonetheless, and a slightly stupid one at that), and I feel that he didn't do much in the way of growing during the course of the novel, but it wasn't enough to put me off reading it or looking forward to the next installment (I'm sure this is the beginning of a series). Certainly, idealistic honorable courageous men who stood up to the imperial bullies were at a premium in those days, and from what history I've read of the time it wasn't unusual for women to marry young and be treated like children or halfwits. Still, I hope as the series advances, so too will Pliny. And his child bride.

The subject matter was darker and the action more brutal than any of the other Roman mysteries I recall reading recently and, thus, more realistically portrays life in those dangerous days, but I didn't find it outrageous or prurient in any way.  Lots of swearing, especially by the soldiers, but quite a bit of it was, if you'll credit it, in Latin.  I enjoyed those parts a lot.  Many of the characters were historical personages, including Pliny, and much of the action was based on first-person accounts by Pliny and others.

In any event, as an aficianado of ancient Roman mystery/detective series, I'm excited to have another Roman detective to follow and highly recommend Roman Games to anyone who enjoys the Falco, Gordianus, Corvinus or SPQR mysteries.

For more plot information, here's the blurb from the NetGalley website:
"Rome: September, 96 AD. When the body of Sextus Verpa, a notorious senatorial informer and libertine, is found stabbed to death in his bedroom, his slaves are suspected.
"Pliny is ordered by the emperor Domitian to investigate. However, the Ludi Romani, the Roman Games, have just begun and for the next fifteen days the law courts are in recess. If Pliny can't identify the murderer in that time, Verpa's entire slave household will be burned alive in the arena.
"Pliny, a very respectable young senator and lawyer, teams up with Martial, a starving author of bawdy verses and denizen of the Roman demimonde. Pooling their respective talents, they unravel a plot that involves Jewish and Christian 'atheists,' exotic Egyptian cultists, and a missing horoscope that forecasts the emperor's death.
"Their investigation leads them into the heart of the palace, where no one is safe from the paranoid emperor. As the deadline approaches, Pliny struggles with the painful dilemma of a good man who is forced to serve a brutal regime—a situation familiar in our own age as well.
"The novel provides an intimate glimpse into the palaces and tenements, bedrooms and brothels of imperial Rome's most opulent and decadent age."
DISCLAIMER: I received this free unproofed eGalley, sent to my Kindle by the publisher with no strings attached, through The opinions in the review are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review. Please note that parts of the story may change between now and publication date. The novel is due for release in October 2010.


Bruce said...

Hi, Mary K. I'm happy to see that you've highly recommended my novel, "Roman Games" on your blog and on Goodreads. I've depicted Pliny, with both his likable and not so likable traits, exactly as he was--at least, that's the Pliny I see from his hundreds of letters. You'll be happy to note that in the sequel, which takes place ten years later, his child bride has become a very independent woman of 24. She will play a large role in that novel.

Mary K. from L.A. said...

Yes, I am very pleased to know that, Bruce! Do you have a series in mind, or is this a two-off set? I very much appreciate the historical versimilitude in your depiction of Pliny. Just because I didn't like some of his ways, doesn't mean I don't like him as a character. :)