The Return

Written by Harry Sidebottom
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

You might suppose that a man who has earned the garlands of a Corona Civica for saving the life of a fellow Roman citizen could look forward to an easier life when he returns home to his family farm. In The Return, the new novel from Harry Sidebottom, however, Gaius Furius Paullus has to face not only his own war trauma but a spiralling number of gruesome murders for which he soon becomes the leading suspect.

Refreshingly set not in Rome but in Calabria in 145 BCE, this pacy thriller has the macabre elements of a Scandi noir with all the rich historical detail of the Roman world that you might expect from someone who teaches Ancient History at Oxford University. While Paullus tries to stay alive long enough to solve this absorbing murder mystery and unmask the rapacious killers, Sidebottom also deftly explores the surprisingly poor economic conditions for returning veterans and the even tougher lives of the Bruttian farmers that they have dispossessed.

While gripping as a crime novel, the author uses his research to portray the attitudes and values of provincial Romans of the time and to add real texture to the overall narrative. The fascinating character of Paullus, and this is very much his book, is unveiled through periodic flashbacks of his disturbing experiences fighting in the Greek wars. His struggle to settle back into family life while battling his own psyche is truly affecting. The conclusion and the unmasking of the true villains is as satisfying as you could want, while the ending of The Return leaves open the possibility of further adventures with Gaius Furius Paullus. Yes, please.