Marcus Corvinus is in a grumpy mood, largely brought on by the misery of spending time in Rome during a particularly wet November. It’s all to the good, then, when Naevia Postuma arrives on his doorstep with just the type of distracting puzzle he likes. Postuma’s uncle, Naevius Surdinus, is dead, squashed beneath a piece of masonry that toppled from a tower he was having renovated on his estate. Postuma insists that this was no accident. It was murder and she’s completely certain of this because Alexander told her so. That’ll be Alexander the Great.
Never one not to roll his eyes at the eccentricities and foibles of Rome’s elite (and non-elite), Marcus’s interest is caught. Not because Postuma believes she is advised by the dead, but because the deceased is an old family friend of Marcus’s wife, Perilla. In fact, Surdinus wrote to Perilla just four days before he died, enclosing a philosophical tract. Surdinus believed he was about to die and once Marcus begins to investigate his family he can understand why.
Marcus Corvinus is my favourite Roman detective and it is so good to see him engaged on another mystery, supported as he always is by Perilla and well-served as he always is by his mind-reading, dry and pithy major-domo Bathyllus and his temperamental, high-maintenance and extraordinarily gifted chef Meton. Quite apart from knowing exactly how to make me laugh, Marcus is also extremely able at sniffing out crime, being something of an otherwise idle aristocrat. His current case is especially satisfying because it appears to be all about Roman broken families. Surdinus was very recently divorced and his home situation wasn’t helped by an ambitious foxy mistress, a jealous and rather incapable son and heir and another son who had been as good as disinherited once he announced his intention of becoming an artist. There are an awful lot of suspects to choose from and Marcus is soon happily embroiled in Roman high society scandal.
But Finished Business is not as straightforward as one might think. As with all David Wishart’s novels there is another side to this world and the clues to that can be found in the date in which the books are set. Finished Business takes place during November 40 AD. Caligula – or Gaius – is emperor but the wings are stirring. There are spies everywhere and more and more notice is being taken of harmless Uncle Claudius. Marcus Corvinus is an old associate of Gaius but even he is now keeping his distance – as long as he is allowed, that is. Caligula has a habit of making his presence felt. Behind the humour, the eccentricities and the puzzles of the murder mystery lies another world and this one is political, far-reaching and with the potential to be very frightening indeed.
Finished Business is very much a novel of two halves, both of which have a lot to offer and provide a great contribution to this wonderful series. It presents a vivid, rich and lively portrait of Rome – its homes both grand and poor, its businesses, shops and streets – as well as the Romans themselves, the men and women who lived their lives within those long gone walls. It’s definitely best to have your wits about you. There are stings in the tail.
I think it’s fair to say that Finished Business is my favourite in the series so far, combining detective story and political drama perfectly, although I must say that I do wish there was more of it. At only 224 pages this is a book to read in just a day or two. I would like to spend much more time in the entertaining, witty and dangerous world of Marcus Corvinus, Perilla and their scene-stealing household.