From the first book in Ruth Downie’s Gaius Ruso series, I fell in love with the gruff but good-hearted Roman medical officer who just can’t seem to avoid getting tangled up in murders despite his best intentions. This sixth installment doesn’t disappoint. From the opening scene – a literal cliffhanger (albeit with a twist) – Ruso is pressed into service once again to save the day in the midst of a hornet’s nest of political machinations between the Romans and the Britons.
On the borderlands of Britannia, the Romans are building Hadrian’s Great Wall, and Ruso spends his time patching up the myriad bumps and bruises of the construction workers. Meanwhile, his wife Tilla, a native Briton who has her own strong opinions about the Romans, tends to the maladies of the locals. Ruso has troubles enough just keeping smooth relations between Tilla and his barracks mates – but then his clerk goes missing, followed closely by a local boy. With a society already teetering on the edge of another rebellion, the disappearances might just be enough to throw the Romans and the Britons back into irreconcilable conflict.
Ruso is that rare detective figure who evolves as a person with each mystery installment, rather than remaining a static character. His relationship with Tilla matures, and his medical career progresses, but he never loses the wry humor and Eeyore-esqe penchant for bad luck that makes his voice so compelling. Admittedly, the sections narrated by Tilla are not quite as captivating, as I never quite broke myself of the habit of seeing Tilla through Ruso’s eyes. But Downie’s attention to detail – both historical detail and human detail – makes this series a joy to read for the mystery lover, the classics fan, or anyone seeking more character-driven genre fiction.