Bloomsbury | 2018 (1 April) | 408p | Review copy | Buy the book
Roman citizen and former military doctor Ruso is now living a settled life on the northern fringe of the Roman empire on what is effectively a major building site – Hadrian is building his Wall – alongside his British wife Tilla. Their customs might be different but life is good especially now that they have Mara, their adopted baby daughter to worry about. But life takes a jolt when an old friend Albanus, Ruso’s former clerk, turns up exhausted after the huge effort of rushing up all of the way from Aquae Sulis (now Bath) to bring Ruso some disturbing news. The wife of Ruso’s best friend Valens has been found drowned in the sacred springs and her father has accused Valens of her murder. The governor is due to visit Aquae Sulis in just a few days and Valens will stand trial before him. There’s nothing for it. Ruso, his wife, child, his entire entourage, must head south in a hurry to prove his innocence. Hoping, of course, that he is actually innocent.
Memento Mori is the eighth novel in Ruth Downey’s hugely entertaining and, I think, really rather sophisticated Roman mystery series featuring Ruso and his independently-minded and rather flakey wife Tilla. The author does a fantastic job of bring the Roman empire to life during the 2nd century AD, especially Britannia. After Ruso’s adventures in Rome itself during the last novel Vita Brevis, I enjoyed seeing Ruso’s return to the homeland of his wife and the ancient city of Bath or Aquae Sulis, with all of its strange customs, brought to life.
At the heart of the novel is Aquae Sulis itself, a magnet for some of the strangest people of Roman Britain, straddling as it does beliefs from both ancient Britain and from the Roman Empire. Druids and Roman soldiers live side by side, with wild priestesses even forming romantic liaisons with grouchy old Roman centurions, and any problem is believed solvable with a spell or a curse. This is a great setting for a mystery and Ruth Downie does such a fine job of filling the streets, temples and baths of this well-known archaeological and historical site with living, breathing people.
I did find that the mystery itself took second place to the superb setting and to the novel’s mood. It is clear that so much research has gone into telling this story right but it’s used lightly. This is wonderful prose, laced through with wit and warmth, and it’s a joy to read. Memento Mori is one of those novels that you pick up and before you know it you’re sucked in to it, loving the way in which it’s written. There are also so many details about Roman life in Britain – religion, death, marriage, rituals, daily life, slaves, soldiers, natives and occupiers – there’s something going on in every direction.
I’m such a fan of this series. I love Ruso and I am warming to Tilla (she does have an alarming tendency to just wander off, here with a shovel) and so these are books I always look forward to. And they look so handsome! Ruth Downie writes so brilliantly and I love the Roman world as we see it through her eyes and those of her Roman doctor, Ruso.