Book Reviews at roman history books and more…
In at the Death
by David Wishart
“About the same time Sextus Papinius, who belonged to a family of consular rank, chose a sudden and shocking death, by throwing himself from a height. The cause was ascribed to his mother who, having been repeatedly repulsed in her overtures, had at last by her arts and seductions driven him to an extremity from which he could find no escape but death. She was accordingly put on her trial before the Senate, and, although she grovelled at the knees of the senators and long urged a parent's grief, the greater weakness of a woman's mind under such an affliction and other sad and pitiful pleas of the same painful kind, she was after all banished from Rome for ten years, till her younger son would have passed the frail period of youth.” [Tacitus Annals, 6.49]
Largely ignoring the remaining text of this paragraph, David Wishart uses Tacitus’ first sentence to construct “…my usual mixture, in the ‘political’ books, of fact and fiction.”
Once one has gotten over the usual shock of the amalgan of modern gumshoe language, thieves cant, Wishartisms, and even the occasional Yiddish (!) words, the story, as so often, becomes enthralling.
It is the last year of the emperor Tiberius’ reign. Our sleuth, Marcus Valerius Corvinus, is asked by the master of the Green faction, a client of Sextus Papinius mother’s family, to discover the reason for Papinius’ suicide, for a very handsome fee. It turns out that the Papinius, some assertions to the contrary, was basically an honest, pleasant youth, but a bit on the high living side with need for money. But suicide? Corvinus is thrown a number of red herrings by respectable members of the Senate, and he soon smells a rat and becomes convinced that Papinius was murdered.
But why? And by whom? Does it have to do with the (real) Aventine fire commission for which Papinius worked, investigating claims from the recent big fire of Rome? Or with Papinius’ unexpected parentage? Or is there more to it? It takes a lot of half-jugs of wine, sandal leather, ambushes, and deliberations and brainstorming with Perilla, Corvinus’ intellectually inclined wife, to figure the whole thing out. A number of historic personages, male and female, make their appearance, including some in high places such as Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, prospective father of the future emperor Nero, and Macro, the commander of the Praetorian Guards and Gaius Caesar’s right-hand man. Readers of Mr. Wishart’s Germanicus and Sejanus will not be surprised about the uncovering of yet another conspiracy, with a final unexpected twist.
Of Corvinus’ household, there appear again Bathyllus the diminutive majordomo, Meton the eccentric chef, sorely taxed as so often, and Alexis the gardener. The proceedings are enlivened by a “house guest” foisted on the Valerius household, Placida, the Gallic boarhound! Her none to placid antics – and those of her temporary master, forced by Perilla to take the hound along on his walks through the city – had me howl. Mr. Wishart, in his Author’s Note, admits that she is a reasonable facsimile of his own adopted dog. I checked, an indeed there is a large dog species called boarhound…
As usual, Mr. Wishart applies his extensive knowledge of Roman history to create a plausible storyline. He writes that he regrets that Tacitus’ Annals break off at Tiberius’ death and do not resume until 10 years later. However, we can safely assume that he will find enough non-political material to keep Corvinus – and his readers – busy.
© 2007 Irene B. Hahn
In at the Death
by David Wishart
Hodder Headline 2007
List Price: US$24.95/£19.99
Other Marcus Valerius Corvinus mysteries:
The Lydian Baker
A Vote for Murder
Parthian Shot see Irene’s Review
Food for the Fishes
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group