SPQR XII: Oracle of the Dead

Written by John Maddox Roberts
Review by Bruce Macbain

In this, the twelfth of Roberts’ Roman mystery series featuring his sleuth Decius Caecilius Metellus, Italy is on the brink of civil war. Decius, who is serving his year as praetor (judge), decides to escape the tensions of Rome and tour the resort towns of Campania, doing a little judging and a lot of relaxing. But Campania too is in a ferment of political and ethnic strife. This comes to a head when the priests of a local temple of Apollo are found murdered and suspicion falls on the black-robed priestesses of Hecate, who utter prophecies to the credulous peasantry in a Stygian chamber beneath the temple. As Decius investigates, the bodies pile up and he too narrowly escapes death.

Roberts serves up a large helping of historical background (sometimes, one feels, almost too much) and is very informative about the curiosa of Roman religion. The plot is well-paced and neatly resolved. For this reader, the book is marred only by dialogue that that strikes the ear as rather too modern and slangy.