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by David Wishart
A Marcus Valerius Corvinus mystery
I needed peace and quiet to think it over. Peace and quiet and a wineshop.
Sure, I'd had the two cups of Syrian, but that was pleasure, not business. If I was going to think, I needed a wineshop wall at my back, half a jug within easy reach and the soporific drone of barflies slagging off the city admin dole-queue clerks, analysing the last set of races in the Circus or explaining at alcoholic length to the barman how their wives-stroke-girlfriends didn't understand them and what bastards their bosses were. The usual, in other words. I headed back in the direction of Iugarius and Renatius's place.
Is Corvinus stymied this time? Of course not. Our hero always figures it out in the end, with reality checks by his skeptical spouse Perilla, a lot of alcohol-supported reasoning, and a dollop of luck…
This time, he is commanded by The Wart, the emperor Tiberius, to look into a potentially embarrassing mugging of Phraates, future Great King of Parthia, a left-over hostage from years gone by, but suddenly of great importance to the Empire. It is the year 35 AD, and the Romans plan to to get rid of the current Great King Artabanus and have all the interest in the world to keep Phraates alive and put him into the former's place. Asked to act undercover pretending to be a diplomatic assistant to the senator Lucius Vitellius, Corvinus predictably comports himself rather undiplomatically.
This being a Marcus Corvinus mystery, he soon has a murder on his hands, which needs solving too. The cast of characters is a bit confusing in the beginning, but luckily the author provides us with a Dramatis Personae list which we can refer back too.
There are motives aplenty, as well a red herrings. The story takes all the twists and turns we have come to expect in Mr. Wishart's mysteries, and it leaves us dizzy without having drunk any Caecuban, our hero's favorite tipple. It all comes out right in the end, if not to the satisfaction of Corvinus, who, as loyal readers know, detests all politics. But this is a conspiracy and goes against his principles, and he doggedly carries on. To tell more would give the plot away.
The story is carefully crafted; indeed, Mr. Wishart writes in his Author's Note:
“I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat at the thought that someone, somewhere, will take the behind-the-scenes skullduggeries of the Corvinus plots for historical fact. They're nothing of the kind, of course, and I would not – being in no way either by nature or qualification an academic – have the nerve to claim otherwise. I am, however, an inveterate Times crossword-solver and a sucker for conspiracy-theorising, with the result that in Parthian Shot, as in the other 'political' Corvinus books, I've done what I most enjoy doing: used a combination of actual events, subjective interpretation from hindsight and a quite shameless attribution of motive to historical characters to construct a work of fiction which I hope will ring true to anyone who knows anything about the period but is primarily just a story”.
It certainly does ring true. Mr. Wishart has a knack of bringing Ancient Rome to life, from the high and mighty to the Corvinus household to the seamier side of life. We are taken to Parthian villas, humble entertainers' quarters, to Ostia and back, and slog along on foot with Corvinus through Rome. There are the usual brawls and perils, and the inevitable wineshops. There is also a sideshow with Corvinus' gifted but temperamental chef Meton and a disappearing basket of lampreys. Marcus Corvinus, as always, is nicely balanced by his brainy wife, Rufia Perilla, stepdaughter of the late poet Ovid.
This is the ninth book in this series, and at least this reviewer looks eagerly forward to the next installment. The above time frame being close to Tiberius' death, and with Corvinus' precarious relationship with Gaius Caesar, some interesting stories hopefully lie ahead.
Some readers may object to the modern Sam-Spade-like language, but it's all done in good humor, and who knows, maybe Romans like Marcus Valerius Corvinus really did talk like that, or?
© 2004 Irene B. Hahn
by David Wishart
Hardcover, 276 pages
Hodder & Stoughton (March 1, 2004)
List Price US$24.95
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