Poor old Gaius Plinius Secundus. Not only is he the ‘other’ Pliny – the one who neither wrote ten volumes of Natural Histories or perished during history’s most famous volcanic eruption – but here, in Bruce Macbain’s Roman Games, he has to investigate the bloody murder of one of Rome’s least appealing politicians Sextus Ingentius Verpa while the emperor Domitian breathes down his neck extremely unpleasantly. Pliny the Younger, the nephew of the Elder, has little choice in the matter. Appointed against his will, he has just fifteen days to solve the crime and prove Verpa’s household slaves innocent. If he fails, the slaves will be burnt alive for the entertainment of the crowds in the Colosseum, on the last day of the Roman Games that might be what the title of the novel refers to.
Pliny the Younger has inherited more of his uncle’s investigative powers than he realised. He soon realises that he may have uncovered a little too much. For these are dangerous days, there’s barely a soul in Domitian’s wicked old court who doesn’t have a conspiracy concealed up their toga sleeve. And then there’s Domitian himself. Here’s an emperor that would as soon kill you as look at you and when it becomes clear that Verpa may have been up to his neck in it, Pliny is caught in an unenviable and perilous spot. Possibly, though, not as perilous as the spot in which Verpa’s unfortunate slaves find themselves.
Roman Games is a murder mystery of many rich layers, which is welcome but not surprising considering that Pliny digs deep into a society built on plots and secrets and sin. The fact that Pliny is such an uncomfortable detective adds an interesting perspective while also showing how hard it is to be an innocent in 1st-century AD Rome.
Pliny, though, is hardly an innocent. His joy in life is focused upon his pregnant wife. All well and good until you soon realise that she is a mere 14 years old. Her adoration for this man twice her age and her efforts to sound like a woman and wife aren’t so much charming as tragic.
Rome is full of victims, here exposed by the murder of the ruthless Verpa: children used as sex toys, slaves, Jews, Christians and women, even royal women. Men aren’t too safe either, come to think of it, especially if they’re very poor or very rich. It might make for an appalling place and time in which to live but it can make for riveting fiction. Martial, the famous epigrammist and Pliny’s ‘assistant’, does not go short of material.
I loved Roman Games. It just ticked all the right Roman boxes for me – interesting ‘heroes’ (though they’re hardly heroic) Pliny the Younger and the poet Martial, an intriguing mystery, a revolting emperor, a well-realised depiction of courtly and servile Rome, strange religions and the presence of something dark and rotten. There might not be much here to do with the Roman Games themselves – which is good (they’re just carrying on in the background, counting down the days like a menacing, resolute clock) – instead this is a courtly murder mystery and political plot enriched by religious and literary references, watched on in horror by the real victims in it all, Rome’s slaves. My only complaint is the length. At under 250 pages (hardback version), I could have done with much, much more.
Fortunately, then, Pliny will be back with another mystery early in 2013.