This is the seventh book in the Roma Sub Rosa series (for my reviews of the previous two see here). Unfortunately, this is the weakest in the series. It took me until I got to the Author’s Historical Note at the back of the book to appreciate just how much of this story was based upon fact. Saylor takes as his inspiration a real-life murder, defended by Cicero and seen as one of the factors which led to the Civil War which breaks down the Roman Empire.
The novel is set in 52BC. Main character Gordanius The Finder is now in his late fifties. The whole thing kicks off with a riot after Clodius (who we met in “The Venus Throw”) is murdered apparently by his arch-enemy Titus Milo. Gordanius is asked to find out what happened and alongside son Eco and new slave Davus they go to the scene of the crime, the Appian Way, to question potential witnesses. There’s a lot of political intrigue amongst Clodius’ followers, Milo, Pompey and Cicero and as a result this novel feels a little stodgy compared to its predecessors and the investigations upon the Appian Way become somewhat dull.
All is not lost, however, as the novel does pick up considerably in the last third with the trial and its after-effects and the characters I have enjoyed reading about so much in the past regain their vivacity. Perhaps there is just a little too much fact in this novel when a bit more fiction might have spiced things up a little. There are some new characters who look like they might have significant parts to play in later novels and all this suggests that the slight dip in quality for this instalment might just be a little blip.
A Murder On The Appian Way was published in the UK by Robinson in 2005. There have been a number of re-issue editions with different covers.
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.