A third deftly plotted puzzler starring Roman battlefield physician Gaius Petreius Ruso and his former house servant—and present lover—Tilla (Terra Incognita, 2008, etc.).
The body count is small, but the intrigue is thick and suitably baffling as the action moves from Roman-occupied Britain to the home front in Gaul, to which Ruso is unexpectedly summoned by his endlessly demanding family. A letter supposedly sent by his curmudgeonly brother Lucius informs the medicus, who’s recuperating from an accidental injury, that his relatives are suspects in the presumed murder of Severus, the greedy creditor who was threatening to bust their assets. Astutely misdirecting us, Downie opens with a scene set aboard a burning merchant ship, on which Ruso’s brother-in-law Justinus is held captive. Then the scene shifts to Ruso’s homecoming, accompanied by Tilla, and the resumption of frayed relations with his snotty stepmother Arria, various half-sisters and other family and their ubiquitous naked toddlers, a wily senator (Fuscus) intent on turning the Rusos’ new ill-fame to his advantage, a lovesick gladiator (Tertius) and Gaius’ combative ex Claudia, more recently Severus’ spouse and possibly “the bitch” identified as his poisoner by the deceased’s final words. Nobody seems upset that Severus has been iced, but crisscrossing investigations produce ever more embarrassing disclosures as the mayhem evolves into something very like an extended episode of Everybody Loves Raymond with togas and guest appearances by the Marx brothers. Ruso’s sullen wit is dependably delightful (“the beheading of unruly relatives seemed a little harsh, but obviously one would exercise discretion”). And when the unquenchably curious Tilla encounters acolytes of the odd new faith called Christianity, we know Downie is sharpening her knives for Ruso’s next surgically precise adventure.
Enormous fun: another lively winner from a newly established mistress of the genre.