Dark doings in Roman-occupied “Britannia” are investigated in this nifty historical mystery, the award-winning English author’s first novel.
The title character, Gaius Petreius Ruso, is an army physician attached to a legion based in Deva (later Chester). He’s recently divorced, overworked, at constant odds with military authorities and further burdened by demands made by his civilian brother on behalf of their financially strapped family. But these problems are trivial compared with the nightmare that builds from the discovery of a murdered slave girl’s body, then the rescue of a girl named Tilla with a broken arm evidently caused by a savage beating, then another female slave’s dead body. Ruso “buys” the uncommunicative Tilla and installs her as his house servant and cook, eventually gleaning from her information that suggests somebody is kidnapping freeborn girls and selling them as slaves. The unusual suspects include bar owner (and probable procurer) Merula, sinister entrepreneur Claudius Innocens (identified, in the amusingly annotated list of “Characters” that precedes the narrative, as “a sleazebag”) and Ruso’s Uriah Heep–like nemesis, nitpicking hospital administrator Priscus. The mystery is a good one, enriched with enigmatic images and episodes (an “invisible dog” hounding the compound, a suspicious case of food poisoning), and a secondary enigma buried in the identity and nature of the goddess whom Tilla stoically worships. But the real achievement here is the lavishly, often hilariously detailed portrayal of the world that absorbs Ruso’s exhausted wits and energies (Downie even manages a few good jokes about English cuisine). And in cheerful mutual insults exchanged between Ruso and his colleague and rival Valens, we hear again the effervescent voices of M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye and Trapper John. And Ruso is a wonderful character, fueled by a dyspeptic machismo and sullen charm reminiscent of Harrison Ford in his heyday.
A charming novel.