Roman Games (Plinius Secundus) by Bruce Macbain

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Roman Games (Plinius Secundus) by Bruce Macbain

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A detective mystery set in ancient Rome that ticks many of the boxes for both genres, making the colder, darker evenings to come seem welcoming.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1908800367

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Sextus Ingentius Verpa isn't the most popular person in Rome. He may be a high ranking politician with the Emperor Domitian's ear but this also means he's a spy, ambitious and not always using his power and position for good. When Verpa is discovered, unceremoniously and repeatedly stabbed in his well-guarded bedroom, there are many who sigh with relief. However, the murderer must still be found and so Domitian appoints Gaius Plinius Secundus (or Pliny the Younger as history will dub him) to investigate. Pliny isn't a natural but reluctantly takes on the task because Domitian says so; Pliny has no choice. Domitian also says that the culprit must be found before the end of the Roman Games, giving Pliny 15 days. Over these 15 pressurised days he'll dig into Rome's filthy underbelly of cults, prostitution and other things he wasn't expecting, including practically adopting his own, personal rude poet.

Bruce Macbain came to writing fiction by a circuitous route. He began with a love of ancient Greece and Rome, fuelled by influences like the film Quo Vadis (having seen it seven times). This then grew into a degree or two and life as a classics expert in academia. It's only fairly recently that he's combined his love of the past with his imagination and Roman Games (originally published in 2010) is the first fruit.

I must say that if Professor Macbain had been my Latin teacher I would never have failed my 'O' level. (Although it has equipped me to tell dead Romans that the cook is in the garden, not a frequently used talent, but not to be sneered at.) He brings the era alive in a similar way to the way that Christian Jacq's mystery fiction vividly recalls Ancient Egypt. The minutiae of daily life are there in addition to snippets that will fascinate as well as inform. For instance, due to their refusal to worship the god-like Emperor, Jews and Christians were considered atheists. Also the Romans' lust for power and domination was enshrined to some extent by law: under certain circumstances, fathers could legally kill their sons. With the ability to call on background like this, even when the murder mystery flags slightly in places, there's more than enough historical content (and an interesting sub-plot or two) to enthral whilst it's picking itself up again. There's also a wonderful glossary at the back, enriching anyone's grasp of Latin, including some words that were definitely not on our exam syllabus.

Pliny comes over as being very human and not being the sort to willingly embroil himself in intrigue. He believes in rights and justice, but worries more about his much-loved 14-year-old wife than fighting for high office; he's just an ordinary (albeit rich) guy trying to survive and therefore easy to like. For me the scene stealer is Martial, the lewd Spanish poet; totally politically incorrect (even for those times) and determined to be sponsored by Pliny, regardless of what Pliny thinks.

The good Professor has also helpfully supplied notes explaining where history ends and supposition begins. He may have taken a few liberties, but he admits it and it does make a cracking good story so all is forgiven.

Like any murder mystery there are twists, red herrings and false alleys as our reluctant hero, poor Pliny, attempts to find a solution whilst the Emperor's soldiers look over his shoulder. I'm not going to discuss Pliny's conclusion, just to say that I didn't find it predictable till about three-quarters in and by then the atmosphere was so engrossing that it really didn't matter.

So now he's dipped his pen in the world of novels, what next from Bruce Macbain? Apparently he has a drawer of projects to choose from, but has opted for a sequel. The Bull Slayer, the second Plinius Secundus novel is due out in early 2013. I feel a franchise coming, but, believe me, that's not a complaint.

I would like to thank Head of Zeus for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you enjoyed this and would like more of Roman intrigue try The Road to Rome (Forgotten Legion Chronicles) by Ben Kane or, if you want to dip into another ancient civilisation, try a taste of Egypt in the form of Hand of Isis by Jo Graham.

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