Book Review: Raiders of the Nile
by Steven Saylor
Minotaur Books, 2014
The “Roma Sub Rosa” series of novels by Steven Saylor kicked off in 1991 with Roman Blood, which introduced the character of Gordianus the Finder, who in 80 B.C. is called upon by the Roman orator and advocate Cicero to help solve the case of Sextus Roscius, a name familiar to an earlier generation of schoolchildren as the subject of one of Cicero’s famous trial speeches. Gordianus lives a quiet life in an out-of-the-way villa with his voluptuous slave and life partner Bethesda, and was striking even about that first adventure was the almost Edwardian calm Saylor used to tell his story. There were no glaring anachronisms (except for the Finder’s profession itself, but then, we could hardly do without that, now could we?), no verbal pyrotechnics, and not even the wonderful narrational salt of John Maddox Roberts “SPQR” series of ancient Roman murder mysteries, which began only a year before “Roma Sub Rosa.”
Instead, Saylor unfolds his novels gradually and atmospherically, far more in the way of standard historical novels than historical whodunits. Likewise the world of his Gordianus isn’t frozen in mystery-novel amber: years pass, the main character’s relationships evolve (and his household expands – Saylor’s ongoing examination of what constitutes family has been one of the best parts of the whole series), and Gordianus himself grows older. The increasingly dramatic background events of his time – the fracturing of the Roman Republic and the rise of charismatic dictators like Sulla and Pompey and Julius Caesar – find Gordianus a steadily older and stiffer man.
2012’s The Seven Wonders and this month’s new novel Raiders of the Nile therefore seem like fairly straightforward efforts to avoid chronicling the adventures of a detective who needs a nap in the middle of the day: take readers back in time to Gordianus’ early years when he was, as he says in this latest novel, “quick-witted and fleet of foot.”
Specifically, Raiders of the Nile turns the clock back eight years and finds young Gordianus fresh off a tour of the wonders of the ancient world and fetched up in Alexandria, intoxicated by his first intimations of love (and love-making) with an equally-young Bethesda, whom he’s only just recently purchased. He’s eking out a small living for himself learning the sleuthing trade we tantalizingly learn he inherited from his father:
My father’s experience of the world was wider than that of most men. He called himself Finder, and he made his living by uncovering other people’s secrets, often of a scandalous or criminal nature. “Digging up the dirt,” he called it. He had seen the full range of human behavior, from the best to the worst – but mostly the worst.
Young Gordianus is squiring Bethesda around the city one day when they stop to watch a raucous performance by a group of street mimes. When the city guards break up the act, Bethesda disappears in the melee that follows, and a distraught Gordianus resolves to find her. “I had spent the last two years in Alexandria practicing my father’s livelihood making contracts and digging up dirt for others,” he tells us. “Now I would put those skills to use for myself.”
Through a pleasingly convoluted series of plot twists, our hero ends up uneasily allied with a group of thieves intent on stealing the legendary sarcophagus of Alexander the Great from its scantily-guarded temple in the heart of the city. Even in the midst of the attempted heist, Gordianus can’t turn off his detail-oriented observer’s mind:
For a man who had been dead over two hundred years, the conqueror’s features were remarkably well preserved. His eyes were closed, as if he slept, but his eyelashes were perfectly intact. I could almost imagine that he might suddenly blink and gaze back at me.
It’s that sense – the feeling in these “Roma Sub Rosa” novels that the distant past is un-aged and ready at any moment to come alive – that is the most reliable payoff of reading Saylor’s books. Through an apparently unfailing combination of scrupulous research and a dramatist’s empathy, he manages to make ancient Rome in the age of empire feel more immediate than present-day Oslo or Leeds in the age of the Internet.
In going back to “fill in” these earlier adventures of Gordianus and Bethesda, Saylor runs the risk of making his characters seem faintly ridiculous, as characters who never stop having adventures almost always are. One possible means of moving the series forward might be to keep moving it backward; Raiders of the Nile hints pretty strongly that Papa Finder’s life was every bit as full of adventures as his son’s. But wherever he goes, Saylor’s fans will surely follow; this is a series that’s never once disappointed.