Saturnalia (S.P.Q.R. V) - John Maddox

The SPQR novels are detective stories set in late Republican Rome, and I have a weakness for anything matching that description. Saturnalia, the fifth in the series, is an improvement on earlier books, but I still can't warm to the central character, Decius. I want to like this series, I really do, but it's still not working for me.

I think there are two problems with Roberts' writing. The first is relationships - he just can't write them. Decius' relationship to his relatives is thin, which might be forgivable given his family, but I've never read a more cardboard double act than that of Decius and his slave, Hermes. There is just no sense of anything human there; most of their conversations feature Decius as the voice of the author, explaining things to the reader, or consist only of simple "Hermes, fetch me this", "Hermes, fetch me that" commands.

Worst of all though are Decius' conversations with his love interest - Julia. She is barely present for most of the book, and when she is onstage it is pretty much just to exchange plot tokens, or to explain the plot by engaging Decius in one of the all-too-frequent "As you know Bob..." scenes.

This tendency to info-dump is Roberts' second weakness. The man couldn't slip some background subtly into a scene if both were greased first, no, much better to just lecture the reader! For example, here is an representative conversation between Decius and Julia, just after Saturnalia:

(Decius)"Did you hear anything last night?"
(Julia)"I may have. [...] and the ladies of the various households visited among themselves, bringing gifts. It's traditional."

Good grief - that's like reading a modern book where our hero is explaining Christmas to his girlfriend... It gets worse too:

(Julia) "Since my uncle is pontifex maximus, we went nowhere. Everyone came to us. Only the family of the Flamen Dailis has as much prestige, and there hasn't been one of those in almost thirty years." The high priest of Jupiter was so bound by ritual and taboo that it was increasingly difficult to find anyone who wanted to assume the position, prestigious as it was.

Good grief again. Decius knows this! There's no need to explain it, or at least, not in such a clumsy manner. And to follow that lecture from Julia with an follow-up in the narrator's voice? Ugh. Worse again, this is the bulk of the conversation between a man who has had several near death experiences in the past few days, and who hasn't seen his girlfriend over the biggest holiday of the year, a time when in fact she's been helping him with his enquiries, possibly putting herself in harm's way! Is their meeting then full of warmth and affection? Does Roberts show any emotional relationship between the two of them at all? Ha, no, I have a stronger relationship with my toaster than Decius and Julia have in this novel. This stands in stark contrast to the love plot-lines in Saylor's Roman Sub Rosa series, or even Lindsey Davis' marvellously soap opera like Falco novels.

Still, despite the author's tin ear for human relationships, Saturnalia is set in my favourite historical period, and it's a genre I like - SPQR 'll do until the next Steven Saylor book comes out.

I'm tempted to try Wishart next - seems to get good reviews.

Posted: Fri - July 25, 2003 at 10:03 PM