The Ghosts of Glevum - Rosemary Rowe

The Ghosts of Glevum
Rosemary Rowe
Headline Publishers
ISBN: 0755305167 (Amazon link)

This is the sixth in a series of entertaining detective novels set in Roman Britain. After reading the previous volume, I commented that while Rowe's novels were enjoyably written, they remained very formulaic detective plots, and that there wasn't much to elevate them above airport fodder. The opening of The Ghosts of Glevum didn't do much to dispel this impression. Our hero Libertus is at a banquet at his patron's house, suffering bad poetry and pretentious food. His patron, the marvellously smug Marcus Septimus, is entertaining important guests, with whom he might soon be sharing the administration of the British province. Governor Pertinax has been transferred to Africa, and his replacement hasn't yet been agreed. Marcus represents the legal authorities, and his guests, Mellitus and Praxus, represent the financial and military authorities. It is expected that these three will come to an arrangement in the interim. However, this will prove to be difficult given that Praxus has been found dead in the vomitorium.

So far, so formulaic. Straight away we have Libertus called in to help, and while I was amused by the crisp writing, I was again well aware that I was reading quite a formulaic plot. Mellitus takes the opportunity of the confusion to suggest that the host, Marcus, must be under suspicion, and the arrival of Praxus' bodyguard soon turns a private tragedy into a full blown Political Incident. It doesn't help when it's discovered that Praxus had earlier been rather inappropriate about Marcus' young wife Julia. This is where my initial impression of a murder mystery by the numbers started to change. I think Rowe woke up one morning and thought, "I like Libertus. He's a decent chap, and his life's coming on nicely these days. He's got a great assistant in his slave Junio, he's re-united with his wife Gwellia, he's high in Marcus' favour, and Marcus is on the rise too. Things are going much to well to be dramatic. Time for a change... what would happen if he had to solve a mystery without Marcus, Junio, his wife, his house, his shop, his shoes or his clothes? In fact, let's take everything away. That'll be interesting!"

If Rowe did hypothetically have that conversation with herself, she was right. I was startled at the abrupt reversal in both Marcus' and Libertus' fortunes, and although I missed the usual supporting cast, I found the plot centred around Glevum's underclass both funny and well thought out. There's a fair amount of broad caricature in the portrayal of the band of thieves, beggars and whores that Libertus ends up consorting with, but that's made up for with the intricate plot. I have to admit to being taken in completely by a neat piece of misdirection, with the result that the ending was a delight, as I was convinced I was right until Libertus started to explain to someone why I was wrong...

I really enjoyed The Ghosts of Glevum, but have to qualify that by saying it owes much to novelty, and that Rowe still has some way to go in adding depth to her characters. Libertus is well drawn, and I find him very believable, but even when he hits rock bottom in this book, I didn't feel that he had much of an inner life - I'd have liked to have felt more despair, more anguish about his family's future, more of anything other than his straight reporting of his situation. Interestingly, I felt his re-union with Gwellia actually served to weaken him as a character. I rather liked his driven, obsessive nature, and feel that there was something interesting about his strong work-ethic and involvement in murder mysteries as mere side notes to his own personal tragedy, things to keep him busy as he tries to find his wife again. Gwellia has been in two of his novels now, and actually hasn't contributed an awful lot - she was much more interesting off-stage.

Comparisons with Lindsey Davis' Falco novels are perhaps inevitable. Falco & Petro seem rounder, more developed characters when compared to Libertus. They have more complex love lives, more complex relationships with their families, and both possess a cynical, world-weary edge from their unavoidable contact with the less elegant portions of society. To be fair, the first few Falco books didn't have this rounded quality - being obvious gumshoe-in-toga comic mysteries - and it's my hope that in a similar way Libertus' will continue to develop over the next couple of books. If her characters develop more shading, Rowe could have a very strong series, and as a fan of detectives-in-togas, I'd be most appreciative.

Worth a read.

Posted: Sat - July 17, 2004 at 01:33 AM