Trade Secrets | David Wishart | 2015 (February 2016 in US) | Severn House | 224p | Review copy | Buy the book
Murders can be like chariots – you hang around waiting for one to turn up to investigate and before you know it you’ve got two on your hands. Purple-striper Marcus Corvinus and his wife Perilla have a house full. Their adopted daughter and son-in-law are visiting Rome with their baby son, fondly named Sprog by his hands-off grandfather, while Perilla is regularly playing host to her book club friends. Just before Marcus can get too frayed at the edges, he is saved by one of Perilla’s literary friends who reveals that her brother Gaius Tullius, part-owner of an import-export business, has just been found murdered in the rather sad and neglected Shrine of Melobosis. An initial investigation into Tullius’s business affairs and personal life reveals a whole host of potential suspects.
But, as if Marcus’s hands aren’t full enough, his daughter gleefully informs him that when she and her husband were visiting one of Rome’s libraries that day they discovered a man stabbed on a bench in the library gardens. If he hadn’t been dead already the knife attack would certainly have killed him. Sometimes it’s useful that Marcus’s son-in-law is a doctor.
The more Marcus digs (quite often by talking to indiscreet locals in Rome’s wine shops) it becomes inevitably clear that both crimes are linked, connected not just by people but also by a place, Ostia, Rome’s busy port. A trip is on the cards. The timing couldn’t be better. A feud with his next door neighbour – a feud begun over a dead cat – is threatening to get out of hand. Sea air will do Marcus and his household some good.
Trade Secrets is the seventeenth outing for my favourite Roman detective, Marcus Corvinus, and I have no hesitation in declaring it one of the best in the series and certainly my favourite of recent volumes. Although the series is well-established, each of the novels stands well alone and you can read them in any order you like. They reveal nothing about past books and cases. But when you’ve read every book in the series right from the beginning as I have then you may well find yourself as hooked as I am on the indolent aristocrat Marcus, his clever, organised wife Perilla and their family, which includes major-domo Bathyllus (who may have written the Roman book on etiquette and manners while looking down his imperial nose) and the temperamental, high-maintenance and extraordinarily gifted chef Meton. This family background comes to life even more in Trade Secrets thanks to the entertaining, distracting presence of the Sprog. I did miss the dog, though.
The usual political angle is also missing from this novel. Marcus has – or had – the misfortune of knowing Caligula and yet managed to survive that reign, and the influence of the emperors has left its mark on the books and Marcus’s cases over the years. But now, in AD 41, Claudius is emperor and Marcus is cousin to Claudius’s glamorous young wife Messalina so it looks like all will be well, not that he likes her very much. Trade Secrets might be less political than usual but this makes Marcus more relaxed, the mood is lighter, and the plot becomes much more significant. This is a good thing because the plot in Trade Secrets is excellent! You have to keep your eye on the ball – and the useful dramatis personae at the beginning – as it develops into a deliciously complex and convoluted case which keeps the reader as entertained as it does Marcus Corvinus.
Adding to the considerable appeal of Trade Secrets is the setting of Ostia. David Wishart always does a superb job of evoking long-dead roads, homes and businesses and now he turns that attention to Ostia. Ostia is one of my very favourite places and I absolutely loved how Wishart here populates its streets, wine shops and waterfront. The place is brought alive.
Unfortunately, as with other recent books in the series, the novel is far too short. I do wish they were longer. Nevertheless, Trade Secrets is perfectly structured, plotted and focused. As always, it is a joy to spend time with Marcus Corvinus as he uses charm, cheek and purple stripe to wheedle the truth out of everyone, especially those he shares a jug of wine with. If you’ve not yet met Corvinus then I do urge you to waste no time in making his acquaintance. The first, Ovid, is still available.