Libertus proves a clumsy spy, but redeems himself when murder mars a lavish wedding.
Roman Britain, 189 CE. Freeman sleuth Libertus is wary at the chummy greeting he receives from his patron Marcus Aurelius Septimus, who has abruptly summoned him. The patrician Marcus, after explaining that he’s planning an imminent trip, “asks” Libertus to take his place at the wedding of Pompeia Didia, daughter of the ostentatiously wealthy town councillor Honorius. Marcus wants Libertus to keep an eye on Antoninus Seulonius, a merchant with political ambitions whom Marcus suspects of dishonesty. From his arrival at Honorius’ elaborate estate, Libertus finds the atmosphere strange. The painfully plain bride looks unhappy in her gaudy gown—perhaps because Gracchus, the groom her father has chosen, is twice her age—and Libertus has a hard time gaining access, despite an expensive gift and the efforts of his silver-tongued slave Minimus. Before the ceremony can take place, Honorius is poisoned, and the family begins turning on one another. Grieving young widow Livia and Honorius’ imperious mother Helena Domna duel for control of the household while Gracchus laments the potential loss of Pompeia’s dowry, earmarked to pay off his massive debts. His curiosity piqued, Libertus begins asking questions and forming his own list of suspects. Given Marcus’ charge, Antoninus should top the list, but his murder complicates the case. A valuable statue may be the key to solving the mystery.
Libertus’ tenth (A Coin for the Ferryman, 2007, etc.) is a crisp and skillfully plotted whodunit full of deft period detail.