It’s December AD 39 and Marcus Corvinus and his wife Perilla are visiting their adopted daughter and her husband close to the small town of Bovillae, a day’s ride from Rome, for the Winter Holiday. Unfortunately, as is usually the case whenever he travels anywhere, Corvinus’s reputation has preceded him and he is greeted on his arrival by a local senator who asks Corvinus to investigate the murder of Quintus Caaesius, the Bovillan censor-elect, who has been found with his head bashed in outside the local brothel. Quite aside from the embarrassment of the brothel angle, as Corvinus digs he discovers that barely a soul in the town and its neighbourhood even knows the meaning of upright behaviour. The list of potential murderers is soon as long as the town’s register and Corvinus has a major task on his hands, in between sitting in bars and mulling it over with a jug or two of (reasonably pleasant if not up to Roman standards) wine.
If you’re as much a fan of the Marcus Corvinus mysteries as I am then you know that the murder mystery is just one half of the story. Every bit as fascinating and pageturning are the dramas that go on in Marcus’s household. His troubles with the bought help are legendary and they show no sign of letting up in Solid Citizens. Quite apart from Marcus’s highly strung, abusive and genius chef Meton, there’s the major domo Bathyllus who looks so far down his nose at every other human being it’s incredible he doesn’t spend his time walking into doors. The problems here intensify because this time Marcus and his extremely clever and natural-born detective wife Perilla are guests in another house with its own staff. Risking life and limb working out who is murdering whom is light relief indeed compared to sorting out these household dramas. And then there’s the dog…
Marcus Corvinus is my favourite Roman detective and I’ve read and can recommend almost every one (the first, Ovid, is still available in kindle format). But it’s been quite a while since I’ve read one of his cases, largely because author David Wishart has been moving between publishers. However, now it looks as if Marcus’s future may be settled, thanks to Severn House, and Solid Citizens is the result.
Solid Citizens is every bit as good as previous novels in the series bar one factor – its length. How I wished it were longer. At approximately 225 pages, I read the book far too fast. This isn’t surprising because the pages are densely packed with intricate plot, lively dialogue, humour and great descriptions of a Roman town and its people and administrators in the middle of the 1st century AD. It’s full of detail and Roman colour. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable story with a mystery that keeps the reader on one’s toes. I’m delighted to say that I didn’t guess the answer. I was sure I had but I was wrong. This happens all too rarely in a mystery and I loved that I was tricked. Marcus is a wonderful character as is his wife but Perilla has little to do here beyond keeping the peace in this rambunctious household.
I am a fan of the earlier Falco novels by Lindsey Davis but for me Marcus Corvinus and David Wishart have the edge and I was so pleased to find the characters and their world as fresh and as enjoyable as ever.