I really enjoy Ruth Downie‘s Roman mysteries. Right from the dramatis personae that introduce them. Vita brevis (Bloomsbury, 2016), for instance, kicks off by saying it’s a novel “in which our hero Gaius Petreius Ruso will be” variously “Accompanied by … / Commanded by … / Entertained by … / Disapproved of by … ” & so on, with some characters appearing in more than one category. At the end Ruth appends, “He will fail to meet the following characters whom his author devised but barely used.”
These books are fun. Which is not in any way to denigrate the intelligence, wit, historical research, social observation and humanity – never mind the tremendous action, atmosphere and narrative drive – that they contain. Parallels with contemporary life here and now are never far away. Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, set against a morality that can draw on many shades of grey in between.
I’ve said it before, but Ruso and his wife, Tilla, are one of the great double acts of crime or indeed any contemporary fiction. Ruso is a military medic from Gaul who served with the Roman army in Britannia, where he met ex-slave Tilla, a native Brigantian. A mixed marriage, then, a fruitful ground for an author to even-handedly play around with. He the sceptic (“Perhaps he was just naturally miserable. Or perhaps the gods in whom he didn’t quite believe were getting their revenge on him“), she open to anything (“If you believe in ghosts and Christos and the normal gods and all your gods from Britannia” he chides).
In Vita brevis, at the behest of his old boss, the pair are taking their chance in Rome. It does not go well from the start, the streets are not so much paved with gold as with a dead body in a barrel left outside their new abode, before they’ve even moved in, and subsequent events only make things worse. They get involved with, among others, a dubious and powerful slum landlord, the local law enforcement, and, for good measure, are caught up in a dangerous romantic sub-plot for good measure. No surprise, things work out in the end, the bad guys do not prosper … and this reader is delighted to discover they are heading back to Britannia again, hopefully for the next book.
Where I think Ruth Downie is particularly acute (cute even) is in drawing out the universality of social life over the centuries. In Rome Ruso and Tilla are seen as provincials, and Tilla, particularly annoyed at being assumed to be from Germania, struggles with the modernity of city life:
“How will we ever be safe in this city? There is nobody in charge.”
“There’s a chap called the urban prefect, and there are departments for -”
“But it is not how a tribe should be,” she insisted. “I thought before we came … But there is no tribe called the Romans.”
“There are several different -”
“It is just lots of strangers all living in one place and fighting to get by.”
“We’ll get used to it,” he promised, realising this was not the time for a lecture on the benefits of civilisation, literacy and the rule of law.”
The matter of the rise of the rebel Christian religion is neatly handled from many angles:
Tilla closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. Whatever her husband might think of the followers of Christos, and no matter how much she herself might want to gag Sister Dorcas, the man with the child’s voice had been right about one thing. It was good to have friendly neighbours.
(Already) Sister Dorcas being a joyless dragon, blaming all bad luck on sin. But with regard to a woman giving up her unwanted baby:
“I just don’t want him to go to no followers of Christos.”
“Why is that?”
“They meet in secret and kill babies and eat them, Ma says.”
“Your ma has been misinformed,” said Tilla, because that sounded better than Your ma is an ignorant gossip.
(Our author also has a neat line in using italics in just such unspoken circumstances.)
Ruth Downie‘s prose is nicely paced, both relaxed and yet involving, and it doesn’t suffer any when it is cranked up for some action. She handles the motif of Ruso and Tilla’s cultural differences deftly. Tilla trying to be “a good Roman wife” but giving up, because “It was very confusing having to say one thing and mean another all the time“; as opposed to back in Britannia, where, Ruso says, “women tended to think they could get involved in whatever they liked, and where men saw the look in their eyes and tended to let them.” But one sympathises with his reaction whenever she launches “ into one of her interminable songs about her ancestors” – a nice running joke. There is also a lovely bit of framing of the whole narrative, too, involving a young character with no name, both unhappily literally delivering the source of our heroes’ initial problem on their arrival, and, who, having found a job that gives him some satisfaction, is there working on the boat that sets them on their journey away.
I have a suspicion that Ruth is a P.G.Wodehouse fan. You want more evidence?
Ruso shrugged. “You know how it is.” It was a statement that he had found to be both meaningless and useful. People rarely admitted that they didn’t know how it was.
And “Jupiter’s bollocks!” seems an entirely reasonable curse to me.