When not in Rome

Ellis Peters has a lot to answer for. Her Brother Cadfael mysteries unleashed a whole plethora of historical crime fiction on the crime reading public. Some of it is very good - think Lindsey Davis - some of it...well, let's not even go there. So when I picked up yet another Roman mystery in my local library, I shuddered at the publisher's blurb on the front cover "Every bit as enthralling as Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis". Now, I like and admire both authors immensely, but this kind of blurb usually leads to disappointment, so I opened Ruso and the demented doctor with some trepidation.

And at first I was worried. Set in Britain during the Roman occupation, the novel (the second in the series) follows Ruso, an Army doctor, and his slave-girl companion, Tilla (a Briton) on their adventures across Britain. In this case up to the border with those pesky Roman hating Northern tribes. It was all very jolly, and rather Lindsey Davis derivative; and then suddenly it took off, and became really good, and I was completely hooked.

R.S. Downie (sometimes published as Ruth Downie) shouldn't be compared to either Saylor or Davis. She's very different from both. She can be funny, but not truly in the Davis mould; neither does she have the gravitas and academic background of Saylor. But she tells a crackingly good tale, and her characters come wonderfully to life. There were moments of true poignancy here, where I was genuinely touched. And what's more it is a stunningly good crime story with a plethora of possible villains, and a neat ending.

The writer who she actually reminded me of the most was Rosemary Sutcliff. The British background was well developed and she has a real sympathy for her characters. A little more historical research and this would be a very fine addition to an expanding canon of Roman crime stories. I look forward with some enthusiasm to reading more in this series.

Incidentally it also opened with a great quote from Martial, which I must repeat "Difficult or easy, pleasant or bitter, you are the same you: I cannot live with you - or without you."


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