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A Coin for the Ferryman
by Rosemary Rowe
I stood at the entrance to the huge basilica and sighed. In a moment I was going to have to walk the length of that impressive central aisle, with its massive pillars towering up on either side. I knew that all eyes would be upon me as I went. There are few things more impressive than a Roman ritual, and this occasion was as formal as they come.
Not that I usually have much to do with ceremonial, apart from the public sacrifices which all citizens are expected to attend; and even then – as a humble ex-slave and mosaic-maker – I am generally watching from behind a pillar, or some other inconspicuous position at the back.
Today, however, I was centre stage, dressed in my best toga …
This should have been the proudest day in Longinus Flavius Libertus’ more recent life: The manumission of his slave Junio, able assistant in the making of floor mosaics, and the boy’s immediate adoption thereafter. (A complex procedure in the year AD 189 – outlined in depth in the author’s Foreword.) Then in the evening, at an intimate banquet, the manumission of the slave Cilla, who is to be betrothed to Junio. The morning ceremony goes off as anticipated, but the rest of the day goes anything but planned. Preparing to drive back from Glevum to his patron Marcus Aurelius Septimus’ country villa, on whose land he occupies a Celtic roundhouse, he is told that a body has been discovered on the piece of land being cleared where a second roundhouse will be built for Junio and Cilla. He is urgently summoned by Marcus’s wife Julia, while the former is still ignorant of the bad news and continues his magistrate’s business of the day.
Libertus was born a warrior in a British tribe, but later captured and enslaved, and finally freed on the death of his master. So was his wife Gwellia, but they finally were reunited and Gwellia is now a free woman and a Roman citizen also. Libertus has become an able “pavement maker” and loves to solve puzzles, and he has solved several crimes for his patron, and even for the former governor Pertinax, whose client Marcus is. Marcus has always been rather arrogant and patronizing towards Libertus, but his recent marriage to Julia has softened him, as becomes apparent in this installment of the mystery series. Marcus, Julia, and their infant son soon will be off on a visit to Rome on the request of Pertinax, now Praetorian Prefect under Commodus, and Marcus’ father is ailing too. Julia is very reluctant to go, as she fears her constantly criticizing and doom-prophesying mother-in-law who detests the fact that her son has married a provincial, no matter how rich. They currently have a haughty visitor from Rome, Marcus’ cousin Lucius Julianus Catilius who too detests the provincial life-style. He collects entertainers and freak shows for the emperor, and the elaborate banquet, with a troop of entertainers, still takes place that evening.
Thus, the murder discovery could not have come at a more awkward time, the more so as the body has been discovered just before the Lemuria, the festival for the souls of the departed, and Libertus is asked to clear it up before the festival begins. Head mutilated beyond recognition and dressed in peasant girl’s clothing, but very well cared for, the body first is believed to be that of a young girl from a good family, but it is soon discovered that it actually is that of a young man. The clothing contains several sewn-in gold coins, certain aureii which are no longer valid currency. Thus mystery builds on mystery.
Libertus is under great pressure to solve the crime so as not to bring bad luck to the Aurelius family at the time of the Lemuria, and to Junio and his new roundhouse either, although the body gets cremated soon. Complicating the matter, the daughter of an an irascible tribal farmer has disappeared at about the same time. As Libertus sets to work, he is constantly belittled by the haughty guest, strange things happen, more bodies are discovered, and Marcus’ gatekeeper is murdered, and there seems to be obstruction all around.
To tell more would give the story away, except that the murders, as far a they are connected, can all be traced back to greed. An astute reader gets plenty of early clues.
As all the novels in this series, this book is written in a rather serious vein. Nonetheless, there is quite a bit to smile about, mostly about the young slaves in both households, especially the eager to please Maximus and Minimus, who are signed over to Libertus while Marcus travels to Rome and tend to finish each others sentences. Life in the villa, town life in Glevum, Libertus’ little household, and the hostile British farmers whom Libertus encounters, are believably portrayed. All in all a good book by a dependable author.© 2007 Irene B. Hahn
A Coin for the Ferryman
by Rosemary Rowe
Headline Book Publishing 2007
List Price: US$24.95/£18.99
Other books in the Libertus mystery series:
A Pattern of Blood
Murder in the Forum
The Chariots of Calyx
The Legatus Mystery
The Ghosts Of Glevum
Enemies of the Empire
A Roman Ransom
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