The Legatus Mystery - Rosemary Rowe

The Legatus Mystery
Rosemary Rowe
Headline Publishers
ISBN: 0747265208 (Amazon Link)

It takes a brave author to set a mystery series in the reign of the Roman emperors, but not take advantage of Rome as the setting. Rosemary Rowe's Libertus is a British freedman of Celtic descent , a mosaicist by trade, living in Glevum (Gloucester) in the second century AD. Commodus is wearing the purple, and as a result, things are a little ... tense ... as rumours of a visiting Imperial Legate circulate.

Unfortunately for Libertus, he is known to Commodus the god, or at least his staff, as he played a part in uncovering a conspiracy against the emperor in a previous book. Not that Imperial favour gets Libertus much in the way of concrete reward - as the novel opens Libertus is being told by his patron, the wonderfully smug Marcus Aurelius Septimus, that the town will be having a special service of thanksgiving during the Imperial birthday celebration. Still, Marcus wants to commission Libertus to do a nice bit of mosaic work - curved statuary niche, tricky - for the occasion, so things are looking up for our rather down-at-heel citizen.

Unfortunately, a slave bursts in with some disturbing news; the body of an Imperial Legate has been found in the Imperial temple... A few concerns naturally occupy Libertus at this news: firstly, attacks on Imperial ambassadors tend to lead to punishments for entire towns. Secondly, the legate is known to Marcus and isn't due in Glevum for some time yet. However, Libertus' main concern is avoiding getting involved, but unfortunately Marcus decides Libertus could be of some use.

Rowe has obviously been reading up on Roman religious practices, which does make a colourful backdrop for what is, in essence, a locked room mystery. In this case however, the problem is that the temple room had a corpse in it when the room was locked up by panicking sevirs, but upon opening for The Authorities, the body has vanished...

As this happens in the Imperial temple, in the temple complex of Jupiter, and is accompanied by strange noises and mysterious bloodstains, it doesn't take long before Libertus appears to have offended not only the priests with his questions, but possibly the gods! Not fair, not when the poor man has just been re-united with his long lost wife, lost to him when they were both sold into slavery in their youth.

I quite like the Libertus books, but I do think of them as airport fodder, literally in my case, as I read the first two while waiting for flights. (Not on flights, just waiting for flights. Long story. Long wait.) Libertus is a sympathetic enough character, and I enjoy his easy relationship with his slave, Junio, who acts as comic sidekick, apprentice mosaicist, and Watson to Libertus' Holmes. It's difficult to say how much the series will change with the re-introduction of Gwellia, as she doesn't actually feature much beyond providing Libertus with some extra clues, and an excuse for Rowe to beat the reader around the head with some of her knowledge of Roman attitudes to slavery. To be fair, her learning is mostly worn lightly, and as Libertus is of Celtic stock, he can carry explanations for the modern reader without requiring obtrusive "As you know Bob, ..." moments.

The Legatus Mystery is competently told in workmanlike prose, and is plotted entertainingly, but I can't help but realise that I'm reading a murder mystery. Something just doesn't seem right about Libertus' involvement in all these crimes - this isn't his trade, and Marcus, despite his huge influence, never even thinks it odd to commission Libertus for all investigations. Despite Gwellia's return, Libertus doesn't seem to have a well realised personal life, and Junio is too conveniently a side-kick character to be a useful foil for the main character. In a similar vein, Marcus just reads too much like a stock detective sergeant, albeit a togate one. I keep waiting for Marcus to bang his desk and give Libertus just one more day! Each novel reads like a standalone episode of "Libertus, P.I." without offering much continuity, or deepening of interest in the primary characters.

Still, decent enough light reading in one of my favourite genres; worth looking at if you are a fan of the genre and fancy something new and undemanding for a long journey. Start with the first book in the series, The Germanicus Mosaic.

Posted: Wed - October 8, 2003 at 12:59 AM