Self-published | 2017 | 280p| Bought copy | Buy the book
It is May, AD44, and purple-striper Marcus Corvinus and his wife Perilla are back in Rome after their eventful jaunt around Gaul. Marcus would like the world to believe that he’s happy spending his days crawling around Rome’s bars, putting the world to rights, untroubled by crimes to solve. They’d be wrong. He is, in fact, at a bit of a loose end. This fortunate state won’t last long. Firstly, Marcus’ mother comes round convinced that Marcus’ stepfather, a man who has always seemed to favour antiques over women, is having an affair, insisting that Marcus should find out exactly what’s going on. And then Marcus’ butler Bathyllus starts to get that guilty, pale and ill look. It’s not surprising. His brother, a fellow slave, has turned up after many years and he’s on the run, wanted for the murder of his master. Marcus has no choice but to help out and that’s when it all starts to go wrong. This is no straightforward case. Marcus should have run a mile.
Family Commitments is the nineteenth (not the twentieth as the back of the cover says) of David Wishart’s fantastic Marcus Corvinus series. This series has had more than one publisher over the years and I’ve worried for its future but the good news is that, although I’ll miss those elegant Severn House editions and wish Corvinus still had a home with them, the author is now publishing the books independently. I’m hoping this means that we’ll get many more of them and I’m very keen to give them my support. If you haven’t read this marvellous series, please do! Set during the first half of the 1st century AD, they bring this fascinating period of Roman history alive. And Marcus and Perilla are both perfectly placed to comment on it – they’re patrician, very well-connected and even know emperors personally, including the really bad ones. It also means that the crimes Marcus investigates are particularly juicy. As this crime especially demonstrates.
You can enjoy each of these novels as standalone mysteries but there is so much pleasure to be had reading this series. I’ll never stop enjoying Marcus, quite possibly my favourite Roman detective. He likes to think he’s satirical, when actually he’s rather sarcy, but he’s most certainly witty, likes a goblet of wine or three, and has his hands full trying to manage the staff while trying and failing to maintain his air of studied aloof detachment. The fact that their chef Meton is a genius with flavours does much to make up for his psychopathic temperament while Bathyllus, the long-suffering butler, has fine-tuned his sardonic attitude into an art form. He is, though, the perfect major domo. And Marcus Corvinus will do anything he can for him. Perilla does all that a matron restricted by strict patrician codes of conduct can do to support her husband, while trying to persuade him to cut back on the swearing and wine guzzling. But it’s Perilla’s input that often saves the day, much to her husband’s irritation. Getting to know these people over the last couple of decades or so has been an absolute joy.
Family Commitments has such a good mystery at its heart and it’s not long before Marcus realises he’s out of his depth. It’s such a tangled knot of intrigue, involving gangsters, cut-throats, politicians, the powerful and the desperate. I did get stuck a couple of times as the number of people involved increases. I found it easy to lose track. No wonder Marcus and Perilla find this one a difficult case to solve. But the way that it all comes together is so brilliantly done. It’s worth the brain ache of one section of the novel. And so much of it is so witty!
Rome is brought to life so well, especially the rather posh bit of it. This is a world of dinner parties and literary evenings, but we also encounter the other side of things as Marcus spends much of his time wandering around Rome on foot. And then there’s the dark shadow cast by slavery. As a patrician, Marcus would have taken slaves for granted and would have depended on them – he certainly depends on Bathyllus – but there are moments here when he reflects on what Bathyllus and his brother have endured and how, ultimately, they are all alone in the world. Marcus wants to do his bit to show them that they have him. It’s all rather complicated and no doubt these are unfamiliar thoughts for a man such as Marcus Corvinus. But it’s rather good that he has them. I love the way in which David Wishart depicts the relationships between master and slave, even though I suspect this is all rather wishful thinking.
This is one of those rare series that I have followed and adored from the very beginning. I still remember reading Ovid all those years ago. Such a wonderful book. Right from the start this series has included some of the most famous and infamous personalities of the day and Family Commitments is no different. This is a time when it very much paid to keep your head below the parapet. Unfortunately, Marcus Corvinus can’t do that. His curiosity – after all he is rich and doesn’t have a job to distract him – leads him into all kinds of trouble and I can’t get enough of it. More, please!