Reviewed by Paul Carrier for THE WALRUS SAID
There are plenty of precedents to inspire an author who wants to place a fictional detective in ancient Rome.
Steven Saylor has given us Gordianus the Finder. From Lindsey Davis, we have Marcus Didius Falco. And John Maddox Roberts has contributed Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger.
While these three heroes differ in key ways, all of them share Rome as their home base, and each is known in the city, to varifying degrees, as a detective. Ruth Downie breaks that mold in Medicus.
Gaius Petreius Ruso, Downie’s addition to the lineup of ancient Roman gumshoes, is neither a detective, per se, nor a resident of the city. He is a doctor in the Roman army, and when we first meet him, he is newly arrived at Deva (modern-day Chester) in Britannia.
The year is 177 AD, when Hadrian succeeded Trajan as emperor. The novel makes passing references to this transition, although the reader, stuck as he or she is in chilly, damp, end-of-the-earth Britannia, feels far removed from the machinations of empire.
No sooner does Ruso finish writing up a report on an unidentified woman whose corpse has washed ashore at the river’s edge but he finds himself rescuing a female slave, Tilla, who looks like she won’t be long for this world if she remains in the hands of her abusive owner.
Three things quickly become apparent. The dead woman was murdered. She had been a prostitute working out of a local bar. And Tilla is a taciturn young Briton with a death wish, at least initially. Ruso’s life becomes more complicated when another female corpse, this one burned beyond recognition, is discovered in a fire-gutted building slated for demolition.
In Ruso we have a dyspeptic protagonist who blends decency and professionalism with an independent streak and a hint of insubordination. Divorced and strapped for cash, he juggles practicing medicine, caring for Tilla and helping his indebted brother Lucius hang on to the heavily indebted family farm in Gaul. Not to mention coping with his status as the go-to guy when it comes to investigating suspicious deaths.
Part of the appeal of Medicus is that it weds an ancient setting and a fine comic touch with modern sensibilities. The end result is that the characters come across as suitably Roman (or British, in the case of the natives), yet recognizable to the modern reader as well.
Ruso and his good-natured but ambitious colleague, Valens, seem to have a reasonably sophisticated understanding of medicine, for example, which happens to be historically correct.
That bane of modern life, the self-important government paper pusher, is on display in the person of penny-pinching hospital administrator Priscus, who paints his head in a vain effort to hide his baldness.
And Ruso has a competent but insecure and overly deferential clerk named Albanus, another all-too-real personality type that anyone familar with modern bureaucracies will recognize.
As the plot unfolds, Downie encourages the reader to muse on such topics as slavery, freedom, imperialism, oppression and conflicting definitions of civilization. It’s a fun read, and thought-provoking as well.