Laing’s novel shows a side of the Roman Empire that’s downright frightening.
During the reign of Emperor Caracalla, perhaps best known for his baths, Prefect Gallus Florio Secundus is the night watchman of Rome, ever on the alert for the fires that threaten to destroy the city. But fire isn’t the only problem: Gallus is also searching for the madman—or woman—who is murdering gladiators, leaving behind their bodies minus their arms or legs, just as someone murdered women to harvest their parts several years before. Senator Quintus Orata seems only to want to help keep the peace, so why has he paid Lucretia, a beautiful prostitute, to spy on Gallus? And why are the Sun and the Moon, members of Rome’s Day Watch, following Gallus about the city, determined to trip him up? Will Gallus find the murderer before he himself becomes a victim? Gallus, a bit of a Roman Kolchak: The Night Stalker, isn’t scared off by the macabre, which is a lucky thing, since that’s exactly what he finds. His stalwart personality makes him a strong hero, though he disappears from the scene from time to time to be replaced by Palpitus, also known as the Little Death, a gladiator with a side story that is hard to follow. The ghoulishly fun tale suffers from a lack of background information and too much modern verbiage. Youths in Ancient Rome weren’t referred to as teens, and readers will be jarred from the time and place when Gallus calls someone “the silent type” and spouts the Middle English “verily,” instead of something a little more Latin. The female characters are underdone; Lucretia is a typical whore with a heart of gold, and Julia the curse-maker and her ancient daughter never really come to life. There are no red herrings here; the villain is apparent from the book’s first chapter, but readers willing to suspend disbelief and unbothered by a lot of bloody goings-on will be entertained, if not enthralled.
Though far from the Christian Rome of Ben-Hur or the classic one of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, this Roman holiday offers a picture of the world of the gladiators readers will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.