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Our book today is Death in the Ashes, a murder mystery by Albert Bell, the fourth in his delightful “Notebooks of Pliny the Younger” series starring, obviously, the famous first-century author and imperial kiss-up Pliny the Younger, here ably assisted (and mocked the whole time) by the even-more-famous historian Tacitus. Both of them are comparatively young men still in the course of the series, not yet famous for their own deeds but rather for their well-known connections: Tacitus is the son-in-law of one of the Empire’s most able and most controversial generals, Agricola, and Pliny, even more famously, is the nephew of the great Roman polymath and administrator and voluminous author we now know as Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius while trying to use the Roman warships under his command to ferry survivors away from the catastrophe.

The memory of that terrible day hangs over all the “Notebooks of Pliny the Younger,” but none more so than Death in the Ashes, in which their latest investigation takesdeath in the ashes Pliny and Tacitus back to the Bay of Naples and to death-site of Pompeii itself. But as the book opens, he’s facing a peril of a decidedly more mundane kind – the fear of public speaking:

I started down the hillside toward the Forum. The largest men among my clients stepped in front of me to clear a path on the crowded sidewalks. After several days of rain the morning was clear and crisp, even a bit cool for the Kalends of October. As I took out my copy of my speech, for some reason an image came to my mind – Pompey, leaving the safety of his trireme, in a little boat taking him to shore, reading over the speech he intended to give before Ptolemy, the Egyptian boy-king, but murdered before he could set foot on shore.

Pliny is due to represent a client in the zesty open-door verbal free-for-all that is Rome’s Centumviral Court, and as Death in the Ashes begins, he and his morning’s roll-call of clients are facing not only the ordeal of the trial itself but also the ordeal of simply getting across town – seldom a casual thing in the violence-prone Rome of the emperor Domitian, especially when the group if forced to deter through the City’s worst neighborhood:

We took the street leading behind the Portico of Livia, dedicated by the deified Augustus to his wife, turned left onto the Clivus Suburanus, and followed it until it ran into the broad street known as the Argiletum. The Argiletum cuts directly through the Subura, the lowest point in Rome in more ways than one. In the Subura the city’s human dregs settle as inevitably as the lees at the bottom of an amphora of wine. Today, as we came down the hill toward it, the place had a particularly fetid smell from all the water that had collected there during the last few days’ rain, washing the garbage from higher spots down with it.

But although Death in the Ashes is a hugely enjoyable murder mystery (once again, the particularly fluid and problematic dynamics of the master-slave relationship seem to fascinate our author – both our authors, since Bell’s extensive research matches the interesting comments Pliny himself makes on the subject at random points in his collected letters), our book today could really be any of Bell’s novels – they’re all immensely enjoyable, as I’ve had occasion to point out here on Stevereads before. These books are every bit as well-written, well-plotted, and emotionally insightful (the relationship between Pliny and Tacitus continues to be the series’ heart and soul) as their bigger-press counterparts in the world of fiction set in ancient Rome – only without the guaranteed library and book-club sales the bigger publishers can lock into the roll-out of those higher-profile books. Bell (and the good folks at Perseverance Press, his new publisher), in other words, relies a lot more on that most trustworthy of all reader barometers: word of mouth.

So that’s my own word on the subject, for what it’s worth: order these books! You won’t be sorry!

  • Pat Browning

    Thanks for the fine review. I started out reading this series but it fell by the wayside during several moves and a couple of computer changes. Time to pick it up again. Albert Bell is such a good writer and he tells a good story.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue