The Tribune's Curse (S.P.Q.R. VII)- John Maddox Roberts

The Tribune's Curse
John Maddox Roberts
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 0312304889 (Amazon link)

I've a weakness for any story involving detectives in togas, but it took me a few books to warm to the SPQR series. The last couple of installments were markedly better reads, and this seventh instalment, The Tribune's Curse, is positively great. (Why do crime writers get better as series get longer, while SF and Fantasy writers suffer the opposite phenomenon?)

The young patrician Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger has finally left Caesar's service in Gaul and has returned gratefully to Rome, but he's not allowed to rest as The Family expect him to immediately stand for the thankless post of Aedile. Traditionally this involves taking as many bribes as possible in order to finance the biggest possible games, in order to secure appreciate votes for the praetorship the following year. An easy way out involves siding with Crassus, the ridiculously rich politician who's planning a nice little war in Parthia purely for his own benefit. Decius isn't too keen on the idea of being beholden to such a power mad old fool, regardless of what his family expect, and discovers that he has enough scruples about factional politics to make campaigning for the post of Aedile decidedly tricky.

Things get much, much trickier on the morning when Crassus sets out for his ill-advised war with Parthia, only to be stopped by the Tribune Ateius Capito at the city gates. One fearsome curse later, Crassus is leading his army off to their doom in Parthia, Rome is on the edge of riot out of fear that Ateius has offended the gods, and Decius finds himself drafted to help solve the little matter of how a mere Tribune like Ateius Capito was able to throw The Secret Name of Rome into his vile curse...

Naturally, an investigation isn't much fun if you can conduct it openly, but luckily the Name is terribly secret, so Decius can't actually ask anyone direct questions. Not that he could anyway, as there's the small matter of the Tribune being found dead in the Tiber soon afterwards. Throw in a Julian wife with her eye on the ruinous expense of society life, a bright but impudent sidekick in the form of his slave Hermes, and the inevitable difficulty of navigating a career in the midst of men like Milo, Claudio, Cato, Pompey, and Caesar and Decius has a fine time. Oh, and he'll be expected to carry a few tonnes of sacrificial animals around Rome a few times to placate the gods, just in case things weren't entertaining enough.

I have to admit that I really like this period in particular, and know just enough to recognise that the author is stretching recorded history a bit - but to good effect. Whatever I thought Roberts wasn't managing to do with his earlier books, he's doing it now. The pace is brisk, the narration is witty, the period detail deftly dovetails into the story, and the characters are sharply drawn and memorable. The plot has an obvious CLUE! lurking in the Egyptian embassy mid-book, but the plot is a little more subtle than the CLUE! would suggest, and events come to satisfying climax without my being either confused or cheated by the ending - something I rarely get in a mystery to be honest. And all this in around 230 pages, short enough for a single sitting. Okay, so The Tribune's Curse isn't going to appear on Booker lists, but in terms of a novelist setting out to entertain, it's a roaring success.


"I was happier than any mere mortal has a right to be, and I should have known better. The entire body of received mythology and every last Greek tragedy ever written have made one inescapable truth utterly clear: If you are supremely happy, the gods have it in for you. They don't like mortals to be happy, and they will make you pay."

Posted: Sun - April 25, 2004 at 01:29 AM