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Mystery Monday: Medicus!

By (May 26, 2014) No Comment

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Our book today is Medicus, the 2006 debut Roman murder mystery by Ruth Downie starring wry, brooding medical man Gaius Petreius Ruso, who’s medicus coverchosen, with uncharacteristic impulsiveness, to respond to the death of his father and a painful divorce back in Rome by moving to the farthest reach of the Empire, distant Britannia, and attaching himself in a medical capacity to the XXth Legion in the outpost of Deva (modern-day Chester).

Downie’s a complete natural at storytelling, despite the number of people in her Acknowledgments section (so nice to see the good folks at the Historical Novel Society get a shout-out!) who’re credited with making Medicus a stronger book. However the division of labor breaks down, it’s a mighty strong series debut, right from the opening scene:

Someone had washed the mud off the body, but as Gaius Petreius Ruso unwrapped the sheet, there was still a distinct smell of river water. The assistant wrinkled his nose as he approached with the record tablet and the measuring stick he had been sent to fetch.

“So,” said Ruso, flipping the tablet open. “What’s the usual procedure here for unidentified bodies?”

The man hesitated. “I don’t know, sir. The mortuary assistants on leave.”

“So who are you?”

“The assistant’s assistant, sir.” The man was staring at the corpse.

“But you have attended a postmortem before?”

Without taking his eyes off the body, the man shook his head. “Are they all like that, sir?”

Ruso, who had started work before it was light, stifled a yawn. “Not where I come from.”

Look at how deftly that’s done: it contains barely any facts, and yet we learn so much, especially about Ruso himself (stranger enough to be unfamiliar with local procedures, but confident enough to command the moment) but also about Downie, about her trust in her own ability to hold the reader with crisp dialogue instead of exposition. The whole setting of Roman Britain draws pedants like an outhouse draws flies, so it’s correspondingly refreshing to find a novel with so little info-dumping in its nearly 400 pages. Instead, Downie more often indulges in very nicely-turned atmospheric asides:

There was a bird chirping in the hospital garden and a murmur of voices. Ruso glanced out the window. On the far side of the herb beds an amputee practiced with his crutches while orderlies hovered at each elbow, ready to catch him. soft breeze wafted in, fluttering the lamps that had been placed on slender black stands around the table, burning for the soul of the unknown figure laid out beneath them.

Medicus takes its time unfolding anything resembling an actual plot, so intent is it on creating a world. Something of a plot does germinate – a man beats alucy reading medicus female slave in the street, Ruso, again acting impulsively, saves her by buying her from the man – but the bulk of this first novel is character study, slowly peeling back the various layers of the complex man at the center of things, teasing out his memories:

A voice whispered in his memory – a voice he hadn’t heard for almost two years now – a voice accusing him of being cold-hearted and arrogant. He silenced it, as he usually did, by recalling other voices. The Tribune’s praise of his “commendable single-mindedness” (of course Valens had to ruin it later by explaining, “He meant you’re boring”). Or the officer’s wife who had smiled at him over her sprained ankle and said, “You’re really quite sweet, Petreius Rufus, aren’t you?” That memory would have been more comforting if she hadn’t been caught in the bed of the chief centurion a week later and been sent back to Rome in disgrace.

One of those memories involves a dramatic encounter with the emperor Trajan, who dies just as the novel is starting. The imperial fortunes of Trajan’s successor Hadrian will, before the novel is done, prove how small in some ways a hemisphere-straddling empire can be, and it’s not like Downie neglects her mystery-author duties – the book’s second and third acts pick up all the plot-threads so leisurely laid down in the first.

And as strong as this debut is, the series gets steadily better – stronger, more confident – as it goes on. I recommend the whole thing, whether you’ve ever been to Chester’s Roman ruins or not.