80 BC and the Roman Republic (not an Empire just yet) is ruled by the dictator Sulla. Cicero (yes, that one) is defending Sextus Roscius who has been accused of murdering his own father. Enter Gordianus, nicknamed “The Finder”, an investigator hired to find the truth. But there are people who don’t want the truth coming out. People who are more than happy to get their hands dirty… again.
An obvious stop on my “Original Sins” tour of mysteries set in the Ancient World is the work of Steven Saylor, a writer for whom this is my first encounter, but whose name I’ve been familiar with for a while. He’s written thirteen books to date in this series, and from what I can see, he makes a point of weaving his stories around actual historical events, which sounds exactly like my sort of thing. So, is this another author to add to my list of obsessions?
Um… no. Afraid not.
Let’s start with the good – and there is a lot of it. Based on an actual case, the historical content just oozes out of this book. Saylor clearly knows his stuff and the book is littered with snapshots of life in Rome. From the background detail to the actual historical content, this is one of the most effective pictures of life in a long-lost era that I’ve read. So what’s the problem?
To be fair, the cover of the book does not refer to the book as a mystery. But the series has been described as a mystery series in a number of places, and that to me is the problem. It’s not a mystery at all – it’s closer to being a thriller, albeit a pretty slow-moving one. There are twists, although not particularly surprising ones.
Can I criticise it for this? The book itself never claims to be anything more than an historical novel, so probably not. But the structure seems to imply a thriller at least, but by sticking to the historical fact of Cicero’s case, Saylor is rather constrained by what developments he can use. There is a point where he can take his own path, but it’s very late in the book, and was too late (and not clever enough) to catch my attention.
If someone was to tell me that the later books actually are mysteries, then I’d give the series another chance, but otherwise, I’ll be giving it a miss. Recommended as an historical novel, but not, alas, as a mystery.