Foreign Bodies | David Wishart | 2016 | Severn House | c.300p | Review copy | Buy the book
Rome is no place to spend the summer and so purple-striper Marcus Corvinus, his wife Perilla and their major-domo Bathyllus are packing up to spend the holidays with their daughter and son-in-law. Unfortunately, a last-minute summons into the presence of the newly installed Emperor Claudius puts paid to that. One of Claudius’s most favoured clients, a Gallic wine merchant, Cabirus, has been stabbed while taking a nap in his garden in Lugdunum in Gaul. Claudius owes his family a debt and who better to pay it by investigating the crime than someone else, ie Corvinus? So off Corvinus, Perilla and Bathyllus go on a long and inconvenient journey to Gaul made even worse by the presence of Domitius Crinas, a doctor with the profile of Apollo and a deep fascination for ancient and religious monuments, making him the ideal tour guide and companion for Perilla.
Before long, Corvinus is immersed in the scandals and gossip mongering of this Gallo-Roman backwater, a place heated by rumour that Claudius is planning an invasion of the locals’ Celtic allies in Britannia. The murder proves to be no easy task to solve and Corvinus’s task is made even harder because Perilla has ‘encouraged’ him, on the advice of the Apollo-profiled doctor, to cut back on the wine. No end of red herrings and motive-rich relatives of the deceased means that Corvinus’s investigations take him and Perilla even further into Gaul where the body count is set to rise. Romans are not particularly popular in Gaul, especially one with a purple stripe, and so even Corvinus begins to fear that he is doomed to failure.
I am a huge fan of the Marcus Corvinus series and have thoroughly enjoyed reading them for years. Foreign Bodies is the 18th in the series and, like most of the novels in the series, this book stands very well alone. In fact, I would argue that it’s a good place to start because it is most definitely one of the very best and does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the dubious goings on of Gaul in AD 42.
The mystery is a really good one and set off by the fantastic setting. Perilla’s interest in sightseeing means that we are given a general picture of the things to do and see in each of the towns visited and this, in tandem with the wonderful descriptions of Romano-Gallic life, the towns, buildings, streets, customs – and taverns – gives the book its historical colour and flavour. But our narrator Corvinus means that we’re never too bogged down in the nitty gritty. He is a man on a mission.
Corvinus’s narrative is as brilliant as ever. His wit shines through and there are moments here that made me snort with laughter. Perilla does a good job keeping a straight face but the jewel in the household is the major-domo Bathyllus, one of my very favourite characters in Roman historical fiction and an absolute scene stealer. At least in this adventure we’re spared the antics of the chef – Meton’s been safely left behind in Rome to upset the neighbours.
Recent novels in the series have been rather short and have suffered for it. Foreign Bodies is considerably longer and David Wishart makes every page count. I relished the opportunity to immerse myself in a relatively and pleasingly complicated murder mystery and enjoyed the time spent getting to know this corner of the Roman empire. Most of all, it was so good to spend quality time with Corvinus, a person I would have loved to have shared a jug of wine with, and his household. Without doubt, Foreign Bodies is one of the very best in this most excellent and happily long-running series.