Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Mysteries of Ancient Rome: Ruth Downie's Medicus Ruso

Cover of Medicus by Ruth Downie
Looking back over some of my earlier posts, I realized that there is a new series I can add to my reviews of murder mystery series set in the ancient Roman world. These are British novelist Ruth Downie's stories of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a Roman army physician serving in Britain around the time Hadrian became Emperor. I first learned of this series when I snagged a copy of the third book in the series, Persona Non Grata, through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, in which publishers provide free copies for a few lucky readers, who promise to publish an online review of the book after they've read it. (Quite a good gig, by the way. I've gotten several good books this way.) I've since read the first two in the series (as Kindle ebooks), and have grown to like bumbling Ruso who, despite being a terrible investigator, nonetheless always gets his man. (You can read my LibraryThing review of Persona Non Grata here.) The fourth  in the series has just appeared in print this month (Caveat Emptor in the U.S. and Ruso and the River of Darkness in the U.K.)

UK cover of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, by Ruth Downie
Before I give my analysis of the series, I'd like to mention something that author Downie acknowledges on her website, namely the fact that the novels go by completely different titles (also, have different cover art and even list the author's name differently) in their U.S. and U.K., as you can see in the two cover images of the first volume displayed here. All of the U.S. editions have as their titles familiar Latin words or phrases (Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor), while the British versions are all titled Ruso and ... (the Disappearing Dancing Girls, the Demented Doctor, the Root of All Evils, the River of Darkness). I attribute this to the fact that the ambivalence contermporary Brits have toward the Latin language. Familiarity with Latin is actually gaining popularity and prestige in the United States these days (think of the "classical education" movement that is gaining ground in homeschooling and private education), while in self-consciously egalitarian Britain Latin is apparently an unpleasant reminder of the bad-old-days class distinction, when the privileged members of the upper (and parts of the middle) class learned Latin as a routine part of their schooling, while the working class remained semi-literate. Presumably, whatever stratum of contemporary British society buys lightweight murder mysteries would be put off by Latin titles. At any rate, I prefer the Latin titles to the rather hokey and contrived Ruso and ... versions.

For the sake of easy comparison with the other Roman murder mysteries I've discussed, I'll stick to the same format for the Ruso novels:
  • Period: Early second century, set in the outer reaches of Roman imperial sway (for the most part, Britain), around the time that Hadrian became Roman Emperor (117 A.D.). At this time, Rome was already a well-established presence in Britain, but was still struggling to subdue the natives; in fact, this struggle is an integral feature of the novels, which play on the cultural differences between the Roman and British ways of understanding life and living it. Persona Non Grata, the second in the series, is the only installment so far to take place outside of Britain: in that story, Ruso goes home to southern Gaul to sort out some family problems. It seems highly unlikely that Roma urbs will feature as the setting of any of these novels.
  • Detective/Protagonist: Ostensibly, this is Gaius Petreius Ruso (although he couldn't succeed without the British Tilla, who starts as his slave and later becomes his wife). Ruso is the eldest son of a provincial Roman family, who for some unexplained reason preferred life as an army surgeon to inheriting his father's villa and farm (Ruso lets his brother take on the headaches of family obligations, as we learn in the third volume). Ruso is a competent physician, but almost completely lacking in personal ambition, which is probably a good thing, as he (like many modern surgeons) is completely lacking in "people skills" or political savvy; not that he is rude or brusque, but he seems to have an emotional IQ of zero. I doubt I've ever known of anyone, in literature or in life, who was so inept at understanding what makes people tick or what motivates human behavior. This, of course, makes him quite an unlikely sleuth, and it must be said that Ruso seems to solve crimes in spite of himself. He succeeds only with the assistance of Tilla, who lacks any interest in investigation but seems to put Ruso onto the right scent without knowing or caring that that is what she is doing.
  • What I like: I like the setting, the juxtaposition of the Roman and Celtic cultures, which provide a wonderful contrast. The reader gets a good sense of why the Romans were never entirely successful at Romanizing the British. Also, I suppose British readers (and Anglophile Americans) will enjoy reading stories set in ancient towns whose Roman roots may go almost unremembered today. The tone of these novels is lightly humorous, but Ruso is by no means the kind of scamp that Lindsey Davis's Falco is. In fact, much of the humor springs from the irony of Ruso's bumbling investigation, with every character other than Ruso seeming to know more than he about the mystery at hand.
  • What I don't like: Although I like the novels overall, I must admit that their protagonist drives me nuts. Ruso's almost complete ignorance of ordinary psychology and his obtuse inability to ask what seem obvious questions at times seem to defy belief. (Ruso is the kind of person who today would inspire engineer or Aggie jokes.) Fortunately, his feminine sidekick, the earthy Tilla, offsets his left-brained, linear-thinking way of going about things.
Like the Didius Falco series, this series aims more at telling amusing stories than presenting gripping, suspenseful mysteries. The would-be sleuth's bumpy relationship with his female partner often looms larger than the question of identifying a murderer. Nonetheless, the solution of the mystery running through the story usually manages to tie these two strands together in a satisfying way. Despite my frustration at Ruso's obtuseness, I'll keep reading the Medicus series.

Yes, I'm still reading!

After a gap of several months of posting nothing to this blog, I might be thought to have given up reading, but such is far from the case. Two majors factors contributed to my recent "blog sabbatical":

Tenniel illustration, the Red Queen
"Now, here, you see,
it takes all the running
you can do, to keep in
the same place."
First, in the fall I was teaching three classes at a college campus 60 miles distant, on a grueling and exhausting schedule that left me with no energy to do anything other than run like the Red Queen, trying to keep up with myself (I lost that race). I had plenty of ideas for blog posts, many sparked by discussions in my literature classes -- my Blogger dashboard shows at least 15 drafts that never got finished and posted, some of which I may complete later. That is the problem with college teaching in the current sweat-shop environment: one is so consumed with preparation, teaching, grading, meeting with students, and various administrivia that there is no time for intellectual leisure or refreshment. And breaks in the academic year that are meant to provide such refreshment are generally consumed by a combination of total physical and mental collapse, followed hard on the heels by a desperate scramble to prepare for the next venture into the fray.

Second, just after quitting that job, which was taking more out of me than I had available to put into it, I received an Amazon Kindle for Christmas. Since that time, I have been reading almost non-stop, mostly books that are available for nothing, or next to nothing, to Kindle readers. (It's ironic that my last previous post was about ebook readers -- at that time I had no real intention of getting one, although the idea was gaining appeal for me.) I've discovered that there is a huge range of reading material available for little or no money for "catholic" tastes, from magnificent literary classics (long available in various electronic formats, thanks to organizations such as the Project Gutenberg ) to truly execrable self-published drivel; I've read some from the entire range, and I'm getting better at spotting the duds before wasting too much time on them. I've also paid for some Kindle books, something which Amazon makes ridiculously (even dangerously) easy.

Amazon Kindle Keyboard
Morning coffee tastes better with Kindle.
I've read essays and articles arguing that the advent of portable reading devices, and the wide availability of free, or inexpensive, electronic books will spur a new renaissance in reading among all sorts of people. Whether that shall prove to be the case remains to be seen; since I was already a reading-addict (since childhood I have been willing to read literally anything with print on it, from pickle labels and pillow tags -- "Do not remove this tag, under penalty of law" -- to the entire World Book Encyclopedia), I can only say that I find my Kindle to be an enormous convenience, which provides a much more pleasant reading experience than I had anticipated. The Kindle is my constant companion, traveling to the breakfast table with me in the morning and accompanying me in the side pocket of my purse wherever I go during the day. Now I need never be without books, magazines, even newspapers to read, because I have them all stored on my Kindle.

Currently I have exactly 300 items on my Kindle, filed in various categories to help make the list more manageable. Here is a sampling from my Current Reading category:

Now that I'm more or less recovered from my academic exhaustion (maybe it's just the effect of spring sunshine and birdsong), I hope to be posting some comments on these works and others, in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, I'm going to post this, so that I can get back to The Spectator.