Vita Brevis

Written by Ruth Downie
Review by Ann Pedtke

Gaius Ruso, Roman medical officer and reluctant investigator of murders, is back for the seventh installment of the delightful Medicus series. This time the doctor has left his home in Britain and moved his growing family into the morass of Rome itself – crowded tenements, bustling slave markets, violent gladiator games and all.

Ruso believes he is coming to Rome to take over a thriving medical practice for a fellow doctor temporarily tied up in family affairs, and hopes to offer his British wife, Tilla, and new baby daughter the stable and respectable home they have long yearned for. Instead, he finds that his predecessor has vanished without a trace, and no one can tell Ruso where the doctor has gone – least of all the dead man discovered in a barrel outside the door. Meanwhile, Ruso’s so-called benefactor, Accius, has other plans for Ruso in Rome, which include helping Accius to win a beautiful young heiress whose father has died under mysterious circumstances.

While moving Ruso to Rome admittedly detracts from Downie’s usual Roman Britain setting – a few scenes come across simply as excuses to give historical cameos to Roman landmarks – Downie’s plotting is as engaging as ever, as she weaves the threads of a murder mystery into the very character-driven story of Ruso and Tilla. While marital strife under the pressures of a new home and a new baby in the household could have proven tedious, these two characters and their relationship are so charmingly portrayed that every domestic scene seems of a piece. The tension between Tilla’s rebellious nature and the ideal of a “Good Roman Wife,” and the tension between Ruso’s outer gruffness and inner integrity make this Medicus installment much more than a mystery novel.