From the Beacon: Mystery series delve into ancient Roman life

Book recommendations and more from the Beaufort County Public Library

December 6, 2009 

Twenty-eight centuries ago, said the Britannica Online Reference Center, the Roman calendar consisted of only 10 months. The month of December ended a year of just 304 days, followed by a dead zone of uncounted winter days.

The eccentricities of the calendar vexed Gordianus the Finder and most other men in the last days of the Roman Republic. In "Murder on the Appian Way," the fifth entry in Steven Saylor's "Roma Sub Rosa" mystery series, the astute ancient detective tracks even the slightest clues. But to keep up with the dates in his busy schedule, Gordianus must rely on his wife. Only the ladies of Rome could tell one day from another or which make-up days had been inserted at the last moment to patch up the calendar's flaws.

Gordianus first appeared in 1991's "Roman Blood," where he was hired by the great orator, Cicero. An unsentimental man with enormous heart, "The Finder" solves cases as much in pursuit of the truth as for coins in his purse. The "gum-sandal" meets everyone who is anyone in Ancient Rome in the course of the 12 titles of this series, most recently "The Triumph of Caesar" (2008).

Following in Gordianus' footsteps comes Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco, of the first century A.D. Eight years before Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city, Falco investigates Pompeiian murder and corruption in "Shadows in Bronze." Sybil Steinberg of Publishers Weekly wrote that Falco, disguised as a vacationer in posh Neapolis (modern Naples), "has a modern sensibility that wears its ancient trappings comfortably, whether he's sneaking down a narrow Roman street or feasting sumptuously in a sunlit coastal villa." May 2009 saw the release of the 19th title in the series, "Alexandria."

"Who would guess that life and death in the far reaches of the Roman Empire could be so darn funny?" asked Library Journal's Jane Henriksen Baird of Ruth Downie's "Medicus." In the first entry of the "Gaius Petreus Ruso" series, legionary physician Ruso hoped to earn some much-needed extra cash by writing a first-aid guide on the side. Instead, he is drawn into a dangerous investigation of kidnapping and the selling of freeborn girls into slavery. Barbara Hoffert, another Library Journal contributor, wrote that the story is "suspenseful and fluidly told, but the evolving bond between master and servant is at the heart of this excellent first work."

In the troubled days of the late Roman Empire (304 A.D.), Ben Pastor's historian Aelius Spartianus tackles a murder case closed two centuries earlier. Readers of "The Water Thief" enter a world where Christians are persecuted and long-subjugated Jews plan a revolt against the Imperial powers. Aelius Spartianus, based on an actual historical personage, goes on to solve more mysteries in "The Fire Walker."

And if you're looking for a unique game to entertain friends and family during their holiday visit, invite your guests to a Murder in Ancient Rome in "How To Host A Murder." It should keep everyone guessing for hours as the layers of a complex murder are peeled away. After all, as the saying goes, "When in Rome ..."

Dennis Adams is the information services coordinator for the Beaufort County Public Library System at the Beaufort Branch of the Beaufort County Public Library, located at 311 Scott Street, Beaufort. Adams can be reached at 470-6505.

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