The Bull Slayer

Written by Bruce Macbain
Review by James Hawking

Richly described settings are one of the strengths of this mystery, beginning with a decorated cave shrine to Mithras and ranging to a tavern that is “hardly more than a loose construction of boards and thatch that threatened to collapse in the buffeting wind.” Pliny the Younger attempts to assert Roman rule on the province of Bithynia as mildly as possible and without the excessive corruption of previous administrations. A fiscal procurator has gone missing, and Pliny suspects that his disappearance may be related to embezzlement.

Relations with the resentful Greek population are complicated, and there are indications that a secret Mithraic cult might be involved. The uxorious Pliny dotes on his young wife Calpurnia, who is isolated and easily led astray by a fraudulent fortuneteller and a handsome young artist. The most interesting character is an assistant named Suetonius, who delights in collecting scurrilous gossip. Fittingly, he is assigned to investigating a brothel. The solution to the mystery comes more from chance than any brilliance on the part of Pliny, but the sympathetic character who comes across in his letters is well represented here. Recommended.