Keeping Up with the Romans: The Senator Investigates
By Bruce Macbain
Poison Pen Press, 2010
Plinius Secundus: the name is a mouthful, which is why history knows the sleuth in Bruce Macbain’s debut mystery Roman Games as Pliny the Younger. “The Younger” is meant to differentiate him from his distinguished uncle Pliny the Elder, an incredibly prolific writer who died trying to evacuate survivors fleeing the wrath of erupting Mount Vesuvius.
The younger Pliny was also a prolific writer, and among his extant productions is a collection of letters he spruced up for publication at some point in his senatorial career – nine little volumes of back-and-forth with his friends and acquaintances, and one concluding volume of correspondence with the emperor Trajan, carried on while Pliny was governor of Bithynia. The nine volumes are quite wonderful in their mannered way, full of gossip and ghost stories and tidbits of first-century Roman life and some very evocative portraits of people Pliny knew; the tenth is a monument both to Pliny’s sniveling sycophancy and Trajan’s stoic forbearance of toadying from his public officials. The whole collection yields a picture of Pliny as a pale imitation of the towering polymath his uncle was – a prissy, careful, basically unimaginative mandarin who likes things just so and has never seriously questioned his own presumptions about life, the universe, and everything.
Since that also serves as a perfect description of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Nero Wolfe , it’s something of a marvel that nobody before Macbain thought to cast Pliny as the detective in a murder mystery. The genre itself is inviting – John Maddox Roberts has been plugging away with his “SPQR” series for years, as has Lindsay Davis with her Marcus Didius Falco books and Steven Saylor with his Gordianus the Finder mysteries, and there are two or three others – which raises the question of whether the stumbling-block might not be Pliny himself. Though the letters themselves are mesmerizing, something you should go out and read without delay (Macbain recommends P. G. Walsh’s Oxford translation, and I second him) – but their writer comes off as distinctly unappealing, not exactly the stuff of literary heroes. That may very well answer the question of why nobody’s cast him as a hero before now.
So it was with more than normal trepidation that I started Roman Games fearful lest Macbain solve this problem by changing Pliny from a satyr to a Hercules. Lord knows, we’ve seen it before in murder mysteries, where even such unpromising figures as King Edward VII and Mycroft Holmes have been transformed into hard-charging daredevils. Even before I’d read past the book’s opening scenes – involving a desperate exile and a gruesome murder – I was lamenting Macbain’s lack of courage in not daring to give us the real Pliny as his protagonist: the coward, the flip-flopper, the political opportunist, the gossip.
Turns out I needn’t have worried. As soon as Pliny is introduced – facing the obligation of greeting his clients while dressed in a formal toga on a hot morning – two things become clear: first, this Pliny is just as thin-skinned and mundane as the epistolary one, and second, Macbain, for all his freshman status, knows exactly what he’s doing:
Even on a sweltering September morning like this one, the ridiculous garment was mandatory for Romans at the salutio. So the mos maiorum, the way of the ancestors, commanded: those ancient, grim shepherd-warriors who could think of no more fitting badge of citizenship than to wrap themselves in a woolen blanket from neck to ankle and damn the weather.
Sheepishly, then, I went back and re-read those opening scenes, one involving Domitilla, the exiled niece of the emperor Domitian, who’s ruled over the Roman world as “Lord and God” for sixteen long years of tyranny, and the other revealing the murder in his home of Senator Verpa – the very man Domitilla had been begging to help her regain her freedom, by warning the emperor of a hidden horoscope predicting his successor … and perhaps naming his assassins. In the matter of a few pages, we learn that Verpa had a sadistic taste for pretty young men and that Domitilla was exiled for “atheistic” beliefs (but was she professing Judaism or the newfangled Christianity?), and once Domitian orders Pliny to investigate Verpa’s murder, the game’s afoot. It’s all so economically and expertly done the reader is hooked with ease.
There are certain historical inevitabilities at work here, and Macbain skillfully plays on a number of them. Readers familiar with the time period will know, for instance, that sixteen years would put us in the last year of Domitian’s reign and bring us right up to the date of his assassination (detail-minded individuals will even be able to spot his future murderers lurking in our cast of characters). Those same readers will perk up whenever crabby old Senator Nerva makes an appearance, since he’s destined to serve as a compromise choice (between the Senate and the Praetorian Guard) to be Domitian’s successor. And far offstage, making war on the borders of empire, is a certain General Trajan who will feature rather prominently in Pliny’s life, though naturally none of our characters knows this while the book is playing out. Macbain is never heavy-handed about any of this; he’s firmly situated in his story’s present-day mind frame – but he can’t resist little winks here and there.
But surely the least expected historical character in Roman Games is Pliny’s accidental partner in solving the Verpa affair: the poet Martial, here recast by Macbain as grindingly poor – and a personal client of Pliny’s (in the ancient Roman sense of being one of the semi-official entourage of hangers-on that all noblemen accumulated). Dramatically speaking, both these recastings are mistakes; the poverty Martial so often claims in his poems was a standard rhetorical pose of the day, not to be taken literally, and the patron-client relationship puts the two men on unequal footing and thereby weakens the chemistry between them. When Martial quips, “Scandal is my stock in trade” to the staid Pliny, we get the hint of an Odd Couple pairing that could have been extremely funny and lively if it had been handled differently. Instead, we get an excess of caution:
Martial gave him an appraising look. “You don’t include the emperor among your household gods?”
Pliny’s hand froze for an instant. Without looking at the poet, he said, “Do you?” Then they measured each other with their eyes. “Of course I worship him -” they both said at once. Then both stopped. Then both smiled. It was a delicate, dangerous moment. Either one of them might have been a spy. “We must serve the emperor we have,” said Pliny carefully.
“Indeed we must,” said Martial. The moment passed. It would be all right.
The pattern of short declarative sentences here – “they measured each other with their eyes,” “then they both stopped,” “then they both smiled” – is unusual for this book, and the few times it crops up are in scenes like this one, where Macbain allows his obviously extensive research to make him forget that despite the literary canon, we really know very little about these two men. A little risk-taking – a little judicious straying from the chapter and verse of our historical sources – would have made a lot better reading.
Fortunately, such lapses in judgement are extremely rare in this book – something of a miracle in itself, considering how often mystery debuts are imperfect creatures which should have been exposed at birth for the benefit of the genre. Macbain’s debut is far from perfect (one central aspect of the climax has an especially ‘so what?’ flavor to it), but it’s so full of lively, insightful writing that most readers will be inclined to be forgiving. “The babe unborn has as much knowledge of crime detection as I do,” Pliny complains at one point, but nevertheless, his investigations take him into the inner workings of Judaism in first century Rome, the hidden world of newborn Christianity, and the world of the cinaedus – the pretty boy-things who are bought and sold on the streets of Rome every day, some to the voracious emperor himself. Interviewing one of these boys (of course named Ganymede), Pliny’s primly orthodox upbringing is constantly affronted:
The voice was unnaturally high and wispy. He was forcing himself to speak in a falsetto so as not to betray his age. When the voice broke a boy’s career was over. Ganymede fluttered his long lashes seductively and touched himself between his legs. Pliny felt a mixture of pity and revulsion. There was something that was not quite human about Ganymede. He was a work of art, the product of someone’s fantasy.
Macbain does enough card-shuffling so that his readers will keep guessing at most of the plot lines until fairly late in the book, and he does this in part by playing his wild card – those prototype Christians – very adroitly. They’re suspected by everybody at the time of shady dealings and perhaps great evils, but Pliny is cautious about believing every rumor. These early Christians (much like their counterparts in all later centuries, one somewhat glumly points out) are certainly killjoys, as poor Martial learns the hard way during an interview with Evaristus, who styles himself a bishop of Rome:
“Oh yes, I know your works: the language of the gutter employed with the skill of an artist for the solitary purpose of drawing blood. The women, whores when they aren’t bald, toothless, eyeless; the men, gluttons, hypocrites and perverts.” Martial opened his mouth but the bishop silenced him with a dismissive flick of the hand. “I know what you’re going to say: you attack the vice, not the person; your verse is lascivious while you yourself are chaste. But I tell you, God sees through that false rhetoric.”
The main story-threads of Roman Games converge rather neatly at the book’s climax, and I breathed a sigh of relief that Macbain even here resists the urge to make his unlikely heroes larger than life. His Pliny is a coward, a hypocrite, and a wimp at the beginning of the book, and he’s all three of those things at the end, albeit a bit wiser around the edges. “You have the soul of a subordinate,” a character tells him at one point, “you will always have a master, if not Domitian, then someone even worse.” And even though we readers know she’s wrong about the second part – Trajan will become emperor and do a fairly enlightened job of it (certainly Pliny himself will have no cause to complain and no further humiliations) – we can’t help but agree about the first part. The fact that we still agree, even at the end of a book that stars Pliny as one of its heroes, is a testament not only to Macbain’s ability but his restraint as well.
His Martial sees things a bit clearer, as is the way with poets:
Pliny wasn’t as cynical or as opportunistic as many others. He was a trimmer, but which of us, Martial told himself, is innocent of the charge of flattery and trimming – certainly not I. The age we live in has shriveled our spirits.
It’s a melancholy thought to be putting in readers’ heads just as a debut novel is ending, and Macbain deserves credit for the courage of it. Martial reflects on all this as he’s departing Rome – his ad hoc partnership with Pliny is over, and a new Roman day is dawning. It’s not exactly the widest-open door imaginable to sequels (at least if those sequels are going to team up Pliny and Martial again), but sequels should be anticipated just the same. This Pliny – the toady as detective – is too authentic a creation, too authentic a re-creation, to be seen this one time only. Surely under Nerva or even Trajan there will be other murders he doesn’t really want to solve? I certainly hope so.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.