In ancient Rome, a vacationing physician turns reluctant sleuth to save his family.
After a long journey, esteemed Londinium doctor Arcturus and his wife Gwyna arrive at their vacation destination of Bath to the unseemly sight of a corpse floating in the town reservoir. Amid the crowd's cries of pollution, Drusius, a burly stonecutter, hoists the body out and Arcturus examines it. The victim is Rufus Bibax, an infamous scribe known locally as "the curse-maker" for his public rants. Townspeople wish to blame the killing on the magic of the reservoir, but the practical Arcturus tries to throw cold water on this superstition with a finding of strangulation, and a note he's found on the body signed by "The Avenger." Hoping to salvage his getaway at the governor's estate, Arcturus leaves the body in the care of the governor's medicus, Lucius Velrius Philo. It's a decision he comes to regret when, after he returns home, strange events continue in Bath and within the Arcturus household. The Avenger claims more victims, and Gwyna suffers an inexplicable illness that makes her physically frail and emotionally erratic, convincing her that the curse-maker Bibax is the root of her malady. Mostly for this latter reason, Arcturus undertakes the complex investigation of the murders, a highly informative path for himself and the reader.
Stanley's debut novel, supplemented by a glossary and a lengthy explanation of curse-making, captures the details and rhythms of daily life in the ancient empire. The whodunit often takes a backseat to the subtle and interesting interactions of his characters.