Shortlisted for Book of the Month
"The dialogue snaps and crackles with life and I loved how Ms Downie so effortlessly presents us with people who are just like we are—albeit they belong in a different time. They bicker like we do, they nag and tease like we do, they care for their babies like we do, they hope and dream like we do. And Ruso’s family worries constantly—like so many of us do—about money. "
Murder mystery/novella/ Fictional Saga
"A novella from the author of bestseller Medicus, featuring reluctant investigator Ruso and his partner Tilla. A tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal in Roman Gaul. It's AD 123 and the sun is shining on southern Gaul. Ex-military medic Ruso and his British wife Tilla are back after a long absence - but it's not the reunion anyone had hoped for. Ruso's brother has left him in charge of a farm he has no idea how to manage, a chronic debt problem and a gaggle of accident-prone small children. Meanwhile, his sister Flora has run away to rescue her boyfriend, who's accused of murdering a wealthy guest at a party. Can Ruso and Tilla save the boyfriend from the murder charge - or should they be saving Flora from the boyfriend? Will any of the guests tell the truth about the fatal party before it's too late? And meanwhile, how long can Ruso continue to lie about what's inside the bathhouse?"
After what appears to be a mandatory visit to Rome, Gaius Petreius Ruso, Roman citizen and doctor, decides to fulfil another expectation, namely a long over-due visit to his family home in Roman Gaul.
Where Ruso is hesitant—and somewhat overwhelmed by his loud welcome—his British-born wife Tilla is most curious. Where he perceived his step-mother and sisters as a trio of demanding women who expect him to sort everything from the mundane to life-and-death issues, Tilla sees a family—a family that at the time of their visit is struggling with various problems, so of course they expect Ruso to help.
And so starts this delightful little caper into Roman times, with the adept Ms Downie holding the reins in a firm grip. Why on earth I haven’t read Ms Downie’s books about Ruso and Tilla before reviewing this novella is a mystery (pun intended). After all, I love beautifully executed who-dunnits set against a relevant historical background, and Ms Downie delivers in full on both accounts.
Thanks to Ms Downie, I am transported back to Roman Gaul and the villa where Ruso’s family lives. No, I do not constantly stumble over amphorae, recalcitrant togas or Latin quotes. Ms Downie sets her stage with a far lighter hand, and where the togas are mentioned they serve a purpose, in this case, to wrap it firmly round young men who have had too much to drink and need to be transported home ASAP: I rather liked that utilitarian approach to a garment I’ve always found a tad…inconvenient.
Further to this, Ms Downie presents us with a vivid set of characters, all the way from Ruso and Tilla to his stepmother who takes it for granted her step-son will do everything he can for his sisters to said sisters themselves—one an intense and passionate young woman, the other not so young and somewhat frustrated by how her life turned out.
The dialogue snaps and crackles with life and I loved how Ms Downie so effortlessly presents us with people who are just like we are—albeit they belong in a different time. They bicker like we do, they nag and tease like we do, they care for their babies like we do, they hope and dream like we do. And Ruso’s family worries constantly—like so many of us do—about money. They don’t have any, this as a consequence of Ruso’s father and the pile of debts he bequeathed to his family upon his death. Accordingly, there is no steaming water in the family’s bathhouse—there is simply no money to maintain such a staple of a well-to-do Roman life. Turns out an unused bathhouse can be put to other uses than those intended…
Others do have money. Some spend indecent amounts of it to indulge in equally indecent behaviour. A group of young, rich men go wild and crazy at a party and when the night is over one of them has been murdered with his bastard brother accused of wielding the murder weapon. Unfortunately for Ruso, his youngest sister, Flora, is determined to marry the accused. All Ruso has to do is prove his innocence—a simple matter for an intelligent man like him, right? Which is how Ruso and Tilla find themselves embroiled in a murder investigation that quickly develops into something far more complex and potentially dangerous than Ruso had hoped for.
For Ruso, the murder inquiry becomes a balancing act between finding the real perpetrator and ensuring his actions do not antagonise his family’s creditors. To Tilla, the murder inquiry is about justice, plain and simple. When Ruso sets the interests of his family before those of the unjustly accused, this causes serious friction between him and his wife, thereby adding an interesting element of spice to their otherwise stable and loving relationship.
How things turn out I will leave for the reader to discover for themselves. To me, this was a perfect introduction to a series I will now happily read my way through. And as to what happens in the bathhouse, well, one could almost paraphrase that old saying and say “What happens in the bathhouse, stays in the bathhouse”.
© Anna Belfrage