The River God's Vengeance (S.P.Q.R. VIII) - John Maddox Roberts

The River God's Vengeance
John Maddox Roberts
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 0312323190 (Amazon link)

With this, the eighth in his Republican Roman detective S.P.Q.R. series, John Maddox Roberts delivers more of the same... which is a very good thing. Yesterday I gushed about how The Tribune's Curse was great fun to read, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I like the sequel too.

The patrician Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is finally making a career for himself in the Senate. Unfortunately this means a year as Aedile, a post which carries no privilege, isn't even really on the Cursus Honorum, involves an awful lot of actual work, and, worst of all, carries with it the expectation that the office holder will lay on lavish games funded primarily through their own pocket. Naturally, the traditional way to handle this involves bribery, the exchange of political favours, and some outright corruption.

Basically, the whole point of the year as Aedile is to bankrupt yourself laying on games which a grateful public will remember by voting you in as Praetor the following year. There's no doubting Decius should slip right into this role, after all he's a Metellus, is married into Caesar's family, and is known to be a close personal friend of Milo... Oddly though, Decius has scruples, and actually takes his duties somewhat seriously.

Two things are worrying him: the first is the collapse of an insula, resulting in several deaths. As the bloodshed can be laid squarely at the feet of contractors cutting corners by using sub-standard building materials, Decius is determined to see Justice done. It's not glamorous, and isn't going to win him the hearts of the upper classes, but it will probably be a strong move politically, winning Decius the support of the lower classes. Just one minor detail - the owners of the insula, when recovered from the debris, both have conveniently broken necks, and all the timber evidence Decius collects gets mysteriously replaced in the salvage yard.

The second plot thread is equally unglamorous; the same former Aediles who turned a blind eye - in exchange for munera funding gratuities naturally - to shoddy building work have been ignoring the sewer system. Decius is regaled with constant warnings about how the Tiber is due to flood, and how the sewers are dangerously clogged with rubbish. Getting them cleared before the river floods is going to be expensive, dangerous, and certainly not financially rewarding to the office holder.

Poor Decius clearly has enough on his plate without the added political complication of his family turning from Caesar in favour of Pompey - leaving Decius with a conspicuously Julian wife to go with his empty pockets. Throw in the usual late Republican politics - the type that makes mail undershirts a practical piece of clothing - and the stage is set for another tightly written and entertaining mystery. This volume is heavier on the mystery than usual, with the plot being much less predictable than, say,The Tribune's Curse. The setting is equally colourful, with more emphasis than usual on Rome's seedy underside; Decius spends an inordinate amount of time brawling through brothels, sewers and burial pits in this one. As usual, Roberts rounds things off nicely with a suitably theatrical set piece confrontation with the villain of the piece, somehow managing to make the most ridiculously formulaic plot resolutions both entertaining and believable. I know I'm a sucker for the period, but this is a very smart little book - recommended.

Posted: Mon - April 26, 2004 at 10:38 PM