Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Murder on the Appian Way - Steven Saylor

   1996; 410 pages. New Author? : Yes.  Book #5 (in the order they were written) of the Roma Sub Rosa series.  Book #9 (in the order they take place chronologically) of the same series.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Publius Clodius, champion of the common people (the Plebians) of Rome, is dead.  He was killed in broad daylight, out on the Appian Way.  Titus Annius Milo, champion of the upper crust (the Patricians) of Rome, fully admits he and his entourage killed Publius.  Case closed, right?

    Well, not really.  All sorts of rumors about what happened that fateful day have cropped up, and class warfare now embroils Rome.  There are riots in the streets, and the Forum has been burned to the ground.  To boot, Milo is a Roman citizen, and he is entitled to a trial.

    It would be prudent if someone would figure out exactly what happened on that fateful day.  But who should be sent?  How about “the Finder”, Gordianus, who’s handled a number of such fact-finding excursions before?

What’s To Like...
    I like Steven Saylor’s writing style.  Lots of showing, very little telling; with enough wit and humor blended in to keep things from being too somber.  There’s a certain “warmth” to the tone of the writing as well, due to the interaction between Gordianus and his family.

    There are a slew of characters to meet – both fictional and historical.  Some of these are “regulars” to the series; but if, like me, this is your first Steven Saylor book, you might want to take notes.  Gordianus makes a fine protagonist – smart, but not brilliant, and the kind of man with whom everyone feels comfortable opening up and talking about what happened.

    As a piece of historical fiction, A Murder on the Appian Way is superb.  Rome comes alive via Saylor’s pen, in both the “big picture” and the minutiae of everyday life.  There are a few, clunky info dumps (does Eco really need to explain to his father what a “fasces” is?), but I suppose they serve to help those who aren’t history buffs visualize what it was like to live in Roman times.  There’s also a map of the Appian Way in the front of the book, which I found to be very helpful as Gordianus wended his way on the fact-finding trip.

    However, as a Murder-Mystery, AMotAW was somewhat meh.  The pacing over the first hundred pages is slow as we watch the rabble go a-rioting.  And even when Gordianus gets moving on his investigation, things just plod along, interview after interview. 

    Some of the “breaks” in getting to the bottom of the case are arbitrary – a snippet of handwriting, for instance.  But if you take careful note of the “unexplained” factors that Gordianus notes along the way, you might be able to uncover the truth before he does.  There are also some “winks” at things like gay sex, masturbation, abortion, and incest; but these were all present in ancient Rome.

    “Not all diseases are grossly physical.  The Athenians are addicted to art; without it they become irritable and constipated.  Alexandrians live for commerce; they’d sell a virgin’s sigh if they could find a way to bottle it.  I hear the Parthians suffer from hippomania; whole clans go to war with each other to lay claim to a fine breeding stud.
    “Well, politics is the Roman disease.  Everyone in the city catches it sooner or later, even women nowadays.  No one ever recovers.”  (pg. 41)

    “Still, rumors spring up like weeds in a crack.  If a story has a hole in it, people will fill it up with anything that fits.” (. . .)
    “People haven’t yet made up their minds.  There’s still a chance for us to tell them our side of the story.  But we’ll have to do it quickly.  Gossip sets like mortar in people’s heads.  Once it’s hardened you have to chisel it out.  Best to pour your own gossip into their ears first.”  (pg. 68-69)

 “Stop quoting laws to us.  We carry swords.”  (pg.  140)
    The most impressive aspect of A Murder on the Appian Way is its historical precision.  Clodius and Milo are real, as are the circumstances concerning their fatal (for Clodius) encounter on the road.  Wiki them to see how painstakingly accurate Saylor was in penning this.

    Just as impressive are the historical consequences of this murder.  Rome as a Republic was on its last legs.  The riots destabilized it further, and paved the way for acceptance of an emperor.  And “Emperor” is just another word for “King”, a concept the Roman populace despised.

    In hindsight, I think I read A Murder on the Appian Way with the wrong expectations.  I was looking for a good Murder-Mystery (which I like), when I should’ve read it as Historical Fiction (which I also like).  Being constrained by the details of this pivotal event in Roman history, which are plentiful, thanks to Cicero, means that there is very little literary freedom to construct an entertaining mystery.

    7 Stars.  This was a slog for me.  Add a full 2 stars if you read it as Historical Fiction, in which case it is a stellar effort.  Two more books in the series reside on my TBR shelf.  I will read them with a different approach.

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