Before reading “Catilina’s Riddle” I had polished off another four books by this writer. I especially loved the first of this series “Roman Blood” which was published in 2007 but since then he has settled into a groove of very satisfying, enjoyable novels. At the centre is the likeable hero Gordanius the Finder and his family. Saylor has a very accessible style which makes him a must for both historical and crime fiction fans. I think I was so impressed by “Roman Blood” because it seemed like a breath of fresh air, but now, five books on I have got used to his style.
In this novel Gordanius has retired to a farm in the Roman countryside away from the intrigue and dangers of the city, having been left the property in a friend’s will. The friend’s family who own the neighbouring farm are far from happy about this arrangement and unrest in Rome begins to trickle into Gordanius’ life when he agrees to grant a favour to old friend Cicero. The “real” event behind this novel is Catilina’s attempt at rebellion and so Gordanius needs to become directly involved with Catilina. I knew nothing about this historical figure and probably if pushed would have said it was a woman, but no, Catilina is male, full of charisma and when he is around the writing really takes off. I can tell that Saylor has enjoyed writing about him. Because of this I can forgiveness a certain lightness of plot and, paradoxically, heavy-handedness by the author to convey back story. This is something I have noticed about Saylor before and here it is particularly evident in a scene with Gordanius and his neighbour near the beginning of the book. This is counterbalanced with some very good sections with Gordanius and Catilina and some seamless incorporation of Roman rituals (Gordanius’ son reaching adulthood). The standard of the Roma Sub Rosa series is maintained with this book.
This led me on to “The Venus Throw”. Saylor has written these books out of chronological order so if you read the series using publication date it skips around a little. On his website you can find the actual reading order for the books, so although this was published earlier than “Catilina’s Riddle”, in the sequence of things it is the next book.
Gordanius is now in his fifties and has two grown up adopted sons (one a soldier and the always likeable Eco a Finder like his Dad) and a teenage daughter with his Egyptian ex-slave wife, Bethesda. An old mentor from Gordanius’ days in Egypt turns up asking for protection. Gordanius is unable to provide it and the man ends up murdered. The case to find the murderer and the trial involves the Finder’s family, Cicero (defender of the accused), the poet Catallus and a notorious brother and sister Clodius and Clodia. Once again the exposition of back story is a little cumbersome and the pace does flag during the trial but there is nothing here that will make me give up on this series. Incidentally the Venus Throw refers to a dice throw and not a blanket for an armless statue!
Steven Saylor is an American writer who may not be the very best in writing about Ancient Rome but is one of the most entertaining. There is an ambivalence towards sexuality which often comes across in his characters which often produces an erotic undertone which I think he handles very well.
“Catilina’s Riddle” was published in 1998 and “The Venus Throw” in 1995. They are part of the Roma Sub Rosa series and are published in the UK by Robinson. I notice that Amazon has an omnibus edition of the first four novels in a Kindle edition currently for the bargain price of £6.99.