A Roman attorney and sometime sleuth distresses his imperious mother by botching his arranged marriage, then ruffles political feathers by probing a violent crime.
At a lavish party in late-first-century Rome, Gaius Pliny celebrates both a decisive victory in court and his impending marriage to the beautiful and wealthy Livilla, a match made by his strong-willed mother, who oversees all with her confidante, Naomi. As the big event approaches, Pliny takes a short trip with his friend Tacitus and Aurora, a slave he grew up with, whose first-person narrative counterpoints the main action. The trio is traveling to offer aid to Crispina, a poor rural woman Aurora encountered with her sick son days ago. At Crispina's home, there's no sign of her or her son, but they find a cryptic message in the form of a word square. They learn that an enemy of Pliny's named Regulus has recently visited and wonder if there's a connection. These concerns fade into the background with the discovery of a woman's headless body on the property. The horror of the situation drives the emotional Aurora into Pliny's arms, and they become lovers, a possibility that's been simmering for decades. Could things get any weirder? Yes, definitely, with the arrival of Pliny's mother and Livilla. The solution to the tangled case involves a kidnapping and a devilish plot to destroy Pliny.
The plot of Bell's fifth Pliny mystery (Death in the Ashes, 2013, etc.) is overstuffed, but the cast is colorful and the period details vivid.