This is the second installment of a historical crime fiction series set in the Ancient Roman Empire. Hapless Roman Army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso has volunteered to leave his post in Deva, where he has served the past eight months, and travel with a contingent of the army to the northern borders of Roman Britannia to a fort at Ulucium. Ruso explained to his best friend and colleague Valens:
“There’s a couple of centuries [military units consisting of (originally) 100 men] going up to help revamp the fort, fix their plumbing, and encourage the taxpayers.”
Ruso was persuaded to go in part because he was frustrated with his assignments in Deva, and in part because of his girlfriend, the former slave Tilla. Tilla came from the region around Ulucium and she wanted to visit her home. She also claimed it was a beautiful area.
When they arrived, Ruso found out that the regular medic was ill, so the fort Prefect [administrative official] assigned Ruso to fill in, and while he was at it, to get the infirmary in shape. Ruso quickly discovered that “a country outpost serving six hundred men [was not] run in the same way as a legionary hospital serving five thousand.” And this was not a positive difference.
Ruso had one more complicated job as well, regarding the recent murder of Felix, a soldier at the post. Ruso was to examine the body of Felix and write up his findings in a “politically correct” way. The problem was that the regular medic, Thessalus, confessed to the murder. The Prefect believed Thessalus was innocent but had gone insane, telling Ruso “we need to get him to withdraw his confession before anyone hears about it, and find out who told him how the victim was killed.” The Prefect intended to arrest a native believed actually to have committed the crime. But the Prefect didn’t want the natives to think the man arrested was just a scapegoat, which would arouse their ire. So in essence, Ruso needed to solve the crime. Ruso said he would do his best, musing “he had a sloppy health service to shape up, a politically sensitive postmortem to carry out, and a deranged colleague. The holiday was definitely over.”
While Ruso was occupied with all of that, Tilla went to her former home, which was nearby, and met up again with her former boyfriend. Altogether, Ruso was very unhappy, and stuck in a politically sensitive quagmire.
Evaluation: I am thoroughly enjoying the “adventures” of Ruso and Tilla, even though both of them are frustrating and prone to miscommunicating with one another. Moreover, the Ancient Roman Empire is a cruel and violent place, and Ruso is so often clueless he usually ends up on the wrong end of the stick. But the books are informative, funny, and entertaining, and I fully intend to keep reading the series.
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008