I've been away from home and from the internet for a week, and took with me a small pile of historical novels, as I thought.
The first I read was Steven Saylor's The Judgement of Caesar, published in paperback in the UK this year by Robinson, £6.99.
It has the strengths and weaknesses of his other Sub Rosa novels. The strengths are Saylor's recreation of the Roman world, this time Alexandria, and his characters, with whom over the series one has come to sympathise. The weakness for me is the stilted dialogue and the tendency to put in un-subtle explanations for modern readers. If you want to see how to include the explanations subtly, turn back to the queen of the Classical historical novel, Mary Renault.
This series of novels has two kinds of murder mystery: the historically factual ones, drawing on Cicero's court speeches, and fictional ones, using historical events as background. This particular novel concentrates on the well-known events towards the end of the Civil War, with the death of Pompey and the arrival of Caesar in Egypt. I was not entirely convinced by the devices which made the hero Gordianus an eyewitness of the most interesting events, although the events themselves are well presented. The obligatory murder mystery, this time fictional, does not arise until page 291, and seems almost an afterthought.
I have not made up my mind about the final pages. Do they satisfy? Do they call for a Fifties Hollywood treatment? I leave it to you to decide.
My next book, largely read during a couple of nuits blanches, was The Athenian Murders, translated from the Spanish of Jose Carlos Somoza in 2002 and published in paperback by Abacus in 2003, £7.99.
I thought it would be the Greek equivalent of Steven Saylor or Lindsey Davis, but I was very wrong. I should have read the quotation from the Independent review on the back cover:
A delightfully paranoiac read on both ancient and modern planes, with enough literary cunning to satisfy fans of Nabokov's Pale Fire as well as of The Name of the Rose.
Yes, there are murders, and a 'detective', and the murder mystery is solved; but the chief mystery is whether or on what level the story is a 'real' one. It purports to be a fourth century novel about contemporary events, edited by a man who had apparently died, being translated by someone who added his own footnotes. I was constantly being made uneasy about what was deception and who was the deceiver.
One possibly unintentional cause of unease was Latin forms of proper names, and one Greek name that I think of as a woman's, applied to a man; and worst of all was the mention of Maecenas!
So if you are prepared to be continually unsettled and genuinely puzzled, do read it; but don't expect Agatha Christie in the Athens of Plato.
The third book was definitely an easier read – and so it ought to be, because it is one of the series for young people by Caroline Lawrence, The Roman Mysteries. To be honest, I bought it in order to see what was available for young people rather than for my own entertainment, but I found it most enjoyable. This particular book was The Pirates of Pompeii, and I should clearly have read the previous stories first. Nevertheless this one, set in the days after the eruption, can stand alone. The characters are introduced with enough background to bring them alive.
I suppose that the book could be described as an Enid Blyton adventure for 21st century young people. The Famous Five would never have had to cope with one of their number with his tongue cut out, or with the birth of two children on the same day, one a slave, the other legitimate, to the same father. But The Pirates of Pompeii has the same page-turning quality, masked villains, adventures in caves, capture and escape, and happy ending. There is even a beloved dog – indeed, more than one. At the same time there is a real sense of the Roman Empire.
So, thumbs up for Caroline Lawrence! I shall be reading the other books in the series.
Meanwhile, I am going to tackle The Song of the Gladiator by Paul Doherty …
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