Thursday, April 12, 2007

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire

I recently finished reading the book Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire. It was written by Ruth Downie. Although I do not read a lot of historical fiction, I decided to give this book a try. And, I am happy to report, I liked it a lot.

Here is Publisher's Weekly description of the book, "The salacious underside of Roman-occupied Britain comes to life in Britisher Downie's debut. Gaius Petrius Ruso, a military medicus (or doctor), transfers to the 20th Legion in the remote Britannia port of Deva (now Chester) to start over after a ruinous divorce and his father's death. Things go downhill from there. His quarters are filthy and vermin-filled, and his superior at the hospital is a petty tyrant. Gaius rescues and buys an injured slave girl, Tilla, from her abusive master, but she refuses to talk, can't cook and costs more to keep than he can afford. Meanwhile, young women from the local bordello keep turning up dead, and nobody is interested in investigating. Gaius becomes a reluctant detective, but his sleuthing threatens to get him killed and leaves him scant time to work on the first-aid guide he's writing to help salvage his finances. Tilla plots her escape as she recovers from her injuries, and just when Ruso becomes attached to her, she runs away, complicating his personal life and his investigation."

The first chapter of the book is CSI: Roman Empire. The good doctor performs an autopsy as part of a murder investigation that sounds very modern. Although entertaining, I wonder how often Roman doctors performed autopsies of murder victims and how good they were at identifying cause and place of death? Ancient doctors knew a lot about the human body so maybe this sort of thing did happen.

Downie does a good job of keeping her chapters short. This makes it easy to put the book down and come back to it later. She also is good at describing how the town looked, how it smelled, and what people were wearing, eating, and drinking. I found the setting to be a plausible description of 2nd century Roman Britain.

I am not a big fan of mystery novels. However, I found the writing of the book to my liking and I liked the twist of it happening Roman Britannia. Is this the introduction of a new series? Will Downie have Gaius Petrius Ruso and his affectionate slave girl travelling the Roman Empire solving murder mysteries? If so, I will be reading more books by Downie.

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