Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls

Written by Ruth Downie
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

Britannia, 117 AD. Having just joined the hospital staff at the Roman legionary fortress of Deva (Chester), world-weary surgeon Gaius Petreius Ruso examines the murdered corpse of a young woman dredged up from the river. Then a ‘barmaid’ goes missing from Merula’s establishment. If this indicates a serial killer at large, Ruso doesn’t want to know. Saddled with the debts of his dead father and home improvement-obsessed sister-in-law in Gaul, he needs to finish writing his Concise Guide to Military First Aid and obtain a speedy promotion. All he has gained up to now is the useless, broken-armed slave girl he impulsively rescued from a passing merchant.

So far, so Lindsey Davis, you might think. Perhaps, but this novel (three of whose early chapters won Solander’s first writing competition) more than holds its own in the Roman detective stakes. Grounded in solid but unobtrusively historical knowledge, it has memorable characters, a satisfying mystery and a vivid sense of place. Downie also treats us to some inspired comic dialogue and a running joke showing the Roman military medical service as an NHS-in-microcosm, complete with bean-counting bureaucrats and literal-minded clerks. An engaging debut, set fair to become a popular series.