23 February 2009

Mystery review: A Murder on the Appian Way by Steven Saylor

Genre: Historical mystery
Year of publication: 1996
No. in series: 5
Series detective: Gordianus the Finder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: Rome, 52 B.C.

Story:
A rabble-rousing Roman politician is killed on the Via Appia highway, a day's journey from Rome, causing widespread rioting in the city. The dead man’s wife sends for Gordianus the Finder to hire him to discover what happened, but eventually he sets out along the Via Appia at the behest of another client. With a lot of digging and patient questioning he finds out what happened, but meanwhile trouble is brewing in his own household…

Review:
This is an interesting 1st century B.C. detective story and political thriller that reads in parts like a modern police procedural. Saylor’s writing is rich in detail and historical information, the plotting is layered and the narrative gripping, and the characters come alive on the page. Saylor is very good at drawing up an image of what Rome and the surrounding countryside could have been like in those times, and is able, without being overly wordy, to conjure up images of cityscape and landscapes that are almost cinematic.

While the story deals with deadly serious events, there is still place for humour, which Saylor has applied with a light and subtle hand.

Several famous historical characters take part in the story, among them Cicero, Pompey, Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar. All of them come across as plausible and their behaviour does not feel out of character, as sometimes happens when real characters are included in fictional narratives.

The story is all the more remarkable in that it is based on real events. The fictional Gordianus is inserted into the story as the investigator, and some twists are provided that make it more than just a novelisation of the events, but the historical basis is there and has made me interested in finding out more about Roman history.

I will definitely be reading more of this series.

Rating: Not just a good mystery, but also an interesting history lesson. 3+ stars.

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