Often the suspect in Roman mystery novels is a slave, so the detective must work to prove someone else did it, or the law will demand that the entire household be executed. Here the investigator is Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, known to posterity as Pliny the Younger. Pliny receives aid from another figure from Roman literature, Marcus Valerius Maritalis, whose connections on the seamy side of Roman life complement Pliny’s access in high places. Martial has few concerns beyond finding a source for his next free meal, a source which turns out to be Pliny. Pliny works on finding the murderer, but he is also involved in impregnating his young wife and maintaining his integrity in a corrupt system. The mysterious presence of a steward named Stephanus with his arm in a sling signals a connection the household of Domitian where an assassination plot is unfolding.
Latin words such as pica (a morbid condition thought to accompany pregnancy) or thermae (large public baths) are sprinkled throughout the text and defined in a glossary. The social background is authentic, and the fictional events are consistent with the known historical framework. Solving the murder is only incidental in this debut novel subtitled “A Plinius Secundus Mystery.” It will be interesting to see what other corpses turn up and what steps Pliny takes to solve their murders. Recommended.