1999; 261 pages (not including the glossary). Book #5 (out of 13) of the SPQR series. New Author? : No. Genre : Historical Fiction; Crime Mystery. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger (just call him plain old "Decius") has been summoned to Rome and given a daunting task. A relative of his, a fellow by the name of Celer, has died suddenly and it is suspected that he was poisoned. Of course, this is in the time of Julius Caesar, and proving it was poisoning is difficult, if not impossible.
Decius’s dad, as well as the rest of his family (and most of Rome, for that matter) are sure that Celer’s wife Clodia did the dirty deed. So their charge to Decius is not to find out who’s guilty, but to find evidence proving Clodia is the guilty party.
But Clodia’s brother, along with the rest of her family, who are powerful political rivals of the Metellus family, have also contacted Decius. Their instructions to Decius are not to find out who’s guilty, but to find evidence proving Clodia is innocent.
It’s a pretty good bet that someone’s going to be very disappointed with Decius’s efforts in this case.
What’s To Like...
Saturnalia is part of John Maddox Roberts’ “SPQR” series, which combines Murder-Mystery sleuthing with some excellent Historical Fiction depicting daily life in the Roman Empire at the height of her glory. I’ve read two other books in the series; they are reviewed here and here. The author’s attention to historical accuracy is so well-researched that it is possible to give a particular year (I’m trusting Wikipedia on this) in which each story takes place. Here, Julius Caesar’s star is still rising, and I liked the way he’s portrayed – powerful and ambitious, but also having keen insight into the things and people surrounding him.
The story is written from the first-person (Decius’s) POV. There’s an extensive glossary of Roman Empire terms in the back of the book, but I think it also could’ve used a Cast of Characters at the front, since there are a slew of them to follow, and just about everyone is a suspect. We tag along with Decius as he asks questions, gets threatened, gets lost, and gets in everybody's hair.
As the title implies, this particular tale takes place during the annual Roman celebration of Saturnalia, and it was really neat learning about this holiday. For a brief time, social taboos such as public gambling are allowed, and slaves and masters temporarily are equals. To boot, if witches are your thing, you’ll enjoy interacting with their various orders – the saga, the striga, and the venefica. The Romans consider these women pagans, preferring to get their fortunes told by augurs, haruspices, and the Sibylline books.
As always, John Maddox Roberts’ wit and writing skills are on display; as is his attention to historical detail. One small example: in those days, the term “janitor” denoted a slave serving as a doorkeeper. Kewl stuff.
Kewlest New Word...
Fillip (n.) : something that acts as a stimulus or boost to an activity.
Others : Proscription (n.); Skirling (v.); Sophistry (n.).
“Suppose I found myself plunged into deepest despair?”
“Try a skilled whore and a jug of wine. That should fix you up nicely. Improve your outlook no end,”
I was almost beginning to like her. “But this is a melancholy beyond bearing. I must end it.”
“Try the river.”
“That would be ungentlemanly. You get all bloated and fish nibble at you.”
“You look like you’ve spent some time with the legions. Fall on your sword. You can’t get nobler than that.” (pg. 49)
“Did Ariston remark at the time upon, oh … any irregularities in the manner of Celer’s passing?”
“No, in fact he stated rather emphatically that the symptoms were those common to death from natural, internal disorders such as attend a great many common deaths. This time, he declared, the only unusual circumstance was the seemingly robust health enjoyed by the deceased.”
“You say ‘seemingly robust health,’” I pointed out. “May I know why you qualify it thus?”
“Well, first of all, he was dead. That alone means he was not as healthy as he had seemed.” (pg. 214)
“If you’re going to lie to me, you might as well get drunk and do it convincingly.” (pg. 77)
The quibbles are minor. The Murder-Mystery is well-crafted, but choosing the culprit seemed rather arbitrary. So take my advice: instead of trying to determine who the murderer is, concentrate on figuring out why Celer was killed.
I also found the final resolution of the crime-solving to be a bit unconvincing. The murderer, having received a message from Decius letting him know the jig is up, opts for an honorable confrontation to decide matters. If I were the guilty party, I would’ve tried something less honorable, and sneakier to silence Decius. Something involving a dark alley perhaps.
Finally, there are several conversations about the politics of the times, and though they are important to the storyline, they got confusing and tedious.
But these are all minor things. Saturnalia is another fine offering from John Maddox Roberts, and I’m sure I’ll be reading more books from this series, especially since my local library has most of them.
8 Stars. 7 Stars for the Murder-Mystery; 9 Stars for the Historical Fiction.