February 11th in Roman History
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 2/25/2019
For my first book review on Rome Reborn, I’m going back in time to 1997’s Classical Whodunnits: Murder and Mystery from Ancient Greece and Rome. 15 of the 20 short mysteries in this collection were written for this collection, but the earliest one, Breni James’ “The Gateway to Death,” was originally published in 1955. The span of dates in this collection, along with the continued publication today of mysteries set in the classical world, proves that there has been a market for ancient investigators for more than half a century, and if current sales are proof, the market is holding steady.
Front Cover of Classical Whodunnits ed. Mike Ashley
The collection expands the definition of “classical” well beyond what most historians might. The most common definition of “classical” ancient Mediterranean history is generally 8th century bce to either the 5th or 6th century ce. The stories are laid out in chronological order by setting. Amy Myers’ mythic tale “Aphrodite’s Trojan Horse” takes place in Greece’s legendary past, where the goddess Aphrodite tackles a mortal’s murder to save her lovely Olympian behind. The final story of this collection takes place in the 7th century with Sister Fidelma, a nun detective in Peter Tremayne’s “The Poisoned Chalice.”
Of the 20 stories, eight are set firmly in Rome. These include Edward D. Hoch’s salacious murder mystery “The Things That Are Caesar’s” and Lindsey Davis’ “Investigating the Silvius Boys.” The standout of these Roman mysteries is the “The Nest of Evil” by Wallace Nichols. Nichols’ slave detective Sollius starred in 60 short mysteries that really need to be republished in their own collections.
Eight of the stories in this anthology are Rome-adjacent, taking place not in Rome but involving Romans around the world or set firmly within the greater empire that Rome controlled. Set just a few days’ travel from Rome as the city is falling into the hands of Odoacer, we have one of the best stories in the entire anthology, “Last Things” by Darrell Schweitzer, who turns his dark fantasy skills into a dark tale of religion, government collapse, and revenge. One of Rosemary Rowe’s earliest mysteries featuring Libertus the pavement maker was written for this collection under the title “Mosiac,” and it also falls into this setting category. Libertus’ adventures in Roman Britain will continue with a new book out in 2019.
Three of these mysteries are set elsewhere and have no or minor references to Rome or the Roman world. “Beauty More Stealthy” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer is set in Constantinople and is one of the longest stories in this collection. Theodore Mathieson’s tale of Alexander the Great’s solving his own murder in “Death of the King” was enjoyable as well as possible if we push history just a bit.
Pushing history a bit also underlines other mysteries in this anthology. “The Things That Are Caesar’s” by Edward D. Hoch offers an unlikely alternative reason for Julius Caesar’s assassination. Having Ovid solve a murder in “Murderer, Farewell” by Ron Burns showcases Burns’ skills as a storyteller, but I didn’t buy the alternate history element.
Not all the mysteries to be solved in this collection are murders. “The Favour of a Tyrant” by Keith Taylor involves property damage in Syracuse, with the famed Archimedes as both target and detective. Anthony Price’s “A Green Boy” has dead bodies, and a lot of them, but primarily this is a tale of uncovering traitors threatening the British frontiers. Likewise, murder is a side-concern for the Romans using Gordianus the Finder’s talents in “The White Fawn” by Steven Saylor.
Good old-fashioned murder is the foundation of most of these stories, however. Metellus, the boastful Roman of John Maddox Robert’s series, decides to take charge when he discovers a body in “The Statuette of Rhoades.” The relationship between Metellus and his slave Hermes feels real, as does their mystery-solving process.
Most of these mysteries were crafted based on a lot of research, and sometimes the details and Latin names feel like the author is trying too hard to impress both editor and reader. Claire Griffen’s “A Pomegranate for Pluto” was her first paid mystery, and it has that sense about it, with the actual crime solving a minor part of the story.
Three other stories I found confusing to read, because their structure varied. “The Garden of Tantalus” by Brian Stableford is told as a flashback, which I found a bit distracting. Although Phyllis Ann Kar presents “The Ass’s Head” as a translation of a long-missing ancient play, it isn’t written in play format, and it felt more like an Elizabethan melodrama. And, with one list and a highlighted “Testimony” section, Gail-Nina Anderson and Simon Clark’s “In this Sign, Conquer” was by far the most confusing to read.
Classical Whodunnits: Murder and Mystery from Ancient Greece and Rome was edited by Mike Ashley and published by Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., in 1997. New and used copies of the paperback are available for sale on Amazon.Join the discussion!