10 Feb 2006
Historical mysteries can serve the dual purpose of not only entertaining readers but taking them out of the mundane world for awhile. We can experience the interesting times of the Chinese curse with the comfort of knowing that salvation can come when the covers are closed.
By that standard, the Rome which Steven Saylor sets his novels about Gordianus the Finder is interesting and especially deadly. Now under the rule of Sulla the dictator, Rome is recovering from a recent civil war that resulted in the deaths of thousands of the city’s citizens, some after being declared an enemy of the state by Sulla.
But Gordianus’ case at first doesn’t concern these proscriptions. The young advocate Cicero asks Gordianus to investigate the murder of an old man, for which the son has been charged and awaits trial. Following in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler’s Sam Spade, Gordianus moves through all levels of Roman society in his quest for the truth. And, like Spade, the trail twists its way into the circles of power where telling the truth can get you killed.
Saylor succeeds in merging the classical to the classic detecting tradition, offering a story full of unexpected twists right up until the last page, while breathing life into Rome’s marble statues and repopulating its ruins. We see the shopkeepers, prostitutes, nobles, wives and advocates going about their business, oblivious to history and concentrating, as we do, only on the here and now. In Saylor’s hands, the human and the historical are merged, and the result is atrip to Rome unavailable through any travel agent.