Book Review: The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 4/8/2019
I know that the last book I reviewed was also an anthology of historic mysteries, but since I’m pulling books from my own collection for these reviews, we’re going to have a few of these to start us off. Think of it as a good way to explore a lot of authors quickly. Today we return to editor Mike Ashley in his 2003 collection The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits.
Front Cover of The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits ed. Mike Ashley
Nineteen of the twenty short stories in this anthology take place either in Rome or the greater Roman world; the stories are laid out chronologically. Only the final mystery, Peter Tremayne’s “The Lost Eagle,” falls outside the traditional area and time period of Rome, yet both Ashley and Steven Saylor, the foreword writer, believe it fits because of the power of the papacy. I think they just wanted to be sure to include Tremayne’s popular detective Sister Fidelma to entice readers.
Sister Fidelma is one of three female mystery solvers in this anthology. Roman mysteries need not be only for adults. Marilyn Todd gives us the anti-hero in Claudia Seferius, who combines advancing her own agenda with solving (and possibly committing) crimes in “Honey Moon.” Flavia Gemina, Caroline Lawrence’s gutsy child detective from the popular YA series Roman Mysteries, brings up an interesting historical point in her story “Bread and Circuses” – were there detectives at all in the Roman world? If there were mysteries or crimes, then there must have been people solving them. Even in the heavily patriarchal Roman world, sometimes the best person for that job might have been a woman or a girl.
What is interesting about this collection is the range of status and occupations the various detectives hold. Our solo philosopher is an unnamed viewpoint character in “Never Forget” by Tom Holt. Holt’s sense of humor was off-putting at first, but it relates to the twist, which I won’t ruin for you. One need not be a philosopher, though, to solve mysteries, as the other 16 stories demonstrate.
Everyday folks may be forced to solve mysteries before they can get on with making a living. The “average” fictional Roman whose logic and reasoning make him a great detective is represented by Gordianus the Finder in Steven Saylor’s “A Gladiator Dies Only Once.” You don't need to be familiar with Saylor’s series, but it does help with some of the references in this story.
Roman soldiers as detectives are common in this collection. We see the first example of this in Michael Jecks’ story “The Hostage to Fortune,” with an unnamed narrator who uses nicknames for everyone. I found that tedious and confusing to read. Centurion Figulus from Simon Scarrow’s “Heads You Lose” finds himself in a tricky spot when charged to find a traitor. The greatest mystery of “The Missing Centurion” is who wrote it and when, because the story itself felt dated and weak. Jean Davidson’s “Golden Opportunity” was a bit more salacious than I was expecting from this anthology, but a fun read. “Sunshine and Shadow” by R.H. Stewart used language that kept taking me out of the story because it felt too modern for the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE.
Romans from the upper echelons of society might solve mysteries for fun or at the order of someone above them. Decius Metellus from the John Maddox Roberts series SPQR perfectly fits this description in “The Will,” having a ball while doing his job. In “Great Caesar’s Ghost” by Michael Kurland, a well-respected legal mind is called to action. The quality of the story, the narrative design, and the pace made this one of my favorite stories in this book. In “Damnum Fatale” from Philip Boast, former Senator Septimus Severus Quistus would rather spend his time reading and grieving than almost anything else, while the descriptions of his aggressive slave woman hit me as racist and sexist.
Famous historical figures also star in some of these mysteries, beginning with the 1952 piece “De Crimine” by Mariam Allen deFord. Cicero – yes, the famous Cicero – is sort of the detective here, but to be blunt, the mystery is revealed by the story rather than a character’s investigation. Pliny the Younger, in letter form, of course, tells the Emperor Trajan about his investigations into more Christian problems in Darrell Schweitzer’s “Some Unpublished Correspondence.”
Freedmen turn detective to make a living or to help out a patron in three stories in this anthology. Rufus was more than a mere bodyguard when he was a slave, and in “The Cleopatra Game” from Jane Finnis, he uses his wits and proximity to protect his patron and his own beloved. Mary Reed and Eric Mayer give us a John the Eunuch mystery in “The Finger of Aphrodite,” where a statue startles then intrigues the Emperor’s envoy. Of course, no mystery collection of ancient Rome would be complete without another Libertus story by Rosemary Rowe. This one, “Caveat Emptor,” lives up to fan expectations but also benefits from the reader’s knowing most about the character’s history.
I think that a slave detective would be nearly perfect for unofficial investigations because they are everywhere and yet often ignored. Yet we find such a character only once in this anthology. Wallace Nichols’ Sollicus uncovers a complex conspiracy while solving “The Case of His Own Abduction” while giving us a decent look into the realities for some slaves in the imperial period.
While there were some less-than-stellar short stories in this collection, the majority were interesting to read. A few had unforeseen twists yet maintained their internal sense of the time period and the status of the main character. Most were well researched, and those details added to the enjoyment instead of detracting from it. Overall, of the twenty stories, the majority held my interest as both reader and historian.
The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits was edited by Mike Ashley and published by Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., in 2003. New and used copies of the paperback are available for sale on Amazon.Join the discussion!