When a foreign prince survives a murder attempt, ancient Rome’s shrewdest and most sardonic detective is enlisted to insure there won’t be another.
Sleuthing Roman nobleman Marcus Corvinus is knee-deep in semi-annual accounts when he receives an offer he can’t refuse from emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, a.k.a. The Wart. Just to the east of the Roman Empire lies the strategically important kingdom of Parthia. Rome has earmarked its elderly Prince Phraates, currently visiting the city with an entourage, to replace its current king, Artabanus. The plan is threatened when a gang of thugs attacks Phraates’ litter; three guards are killed, but the prince survives. Marcus is charged with finding the perpetrator, lest Rome’s political plan be dashed. Unfortunately for Marcus—but fortunately for the reader—he’s saddled with an amusingly fussy and high-strung sidekick, senatorial commissioner Vitellius. At a dinner hosted by Phraates at his embassy, Marcus gets a bead on the delicate dynamics among Phraates’ entourage, which includes his burly eunuch Peucestas, his surly bastard son Damon, and his faithful nephew Tiridates. Murder follows, but not Phraates’; the victim is Zariades, nobleman and Parthian ambassador. Suspicion falls first on the inner circle, in what appears to be a proverbial locked-room murder. But the more Marcus investigates, the less sure he becomes of his assumptions.
Marcus’ fourth appearance (Last Rites, 2003, etc.) provides the series’ best balance of mystery and history yet.