Downie’s wonderful historical mystery series (Persona Non Grata, 2009, etc.) set in 2nd-century CE Roman-occupied Britain cruises along in high gear in this entertaining fourth installment.
Serial physician (medicus) and de facto detective Gaius Petreius Ruso is assigned to investigate the suspicious disappearance of both tax collector Julius Asper and money owed to the coffers of Emperor Hadrian. Ruso traces a path between the Roman command center in Londinium and the northern metropolis (Verulamium) whence Asper and his brother (also “missing”) have presumably fled. When it appears both fugitives were murdered, Asper’s pregnant common-law wife begins hurling accusations. Ruso’s former servant and present wife Tilla does what she usually does, helping out, investigating on her own and attracting the threatening attentions of assorted suspects. The latter include multiple high-living magistrates, a sinister security chief, an even more menacing captain of Verulamium’s security forces, a craven finance officer, a housekeeper who knows perhaps too many secrets for her own good—oh, and there’s also a three-legged dog named (what else?) Cerberus. The intriguingly tricky plot—arguably marred by too many otherwise brisk scenes which do little more than move Ruso from one locale to another—turns on a clever forgery scheme; and, as always, Downie displays a virtuoso’s command of pertinent period detail. Along the way, the body count rises rather alarmingly and it seems that as many innocent as guilty parties are severely punished. The subplot concerning Tilla’s frustrated yearning to conceive a child takes a poignant new turn, while opening a clear path toward another sequel. Fortunately, when in Britannia, Downie remains a peerless storyteller and a master entertainer.
BBC's Masterpiece should take a long look at this series. It’s a winner.