Poisoned Pen, Oct 2010, $$24.95
In 96 AD in Rome, Senatorial Informer Sextus Verpa is found viciously stabbed to death in his home. The household slaves of the deceased are the only suspects; with no rights they will be executed for his murder once the Ludi Romani Games are over; as no one is killed by the state during the fifteen days of contests.
Meanwhile Emperor Domitian could not care less about slaughtering some slaves in an inferno, but wants to insure his enemies are not behind the stabbing murder. He orders Senator Gaius Plinius Caecillius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger, to investigate. Pliny enlists the help of starving author Martial in order to enter places he would have no cooperation. Soon the pair begins to unravel a convoluted conspiracy starting with a horoscope reading that predicts the death of the Emperor is near with tentacles reaching from Jewish and Christian sects, supporters of the Roman pantheon, and Egyptian cultists; but the most dangerous locale for the detecting duet is the palace where the brutal emperor wears no clothes.
Ancient Rome has been used as the backdrop for several mystery series by Steven Saylor, Robert Harris and John Robert Maddox for instance and more so Albert Bell whose lead is Pliny the Younger. However, Bruce Macbain keeps his saga fresh with a strong look at the decadence at the end of the first century in which an ethical hero struggles to keep his morality and his head. The story line is fast-paced as the two opposite ins status and outlook sleuths unite following clues that are religious and political dangerous as separation of state denotes separation of one’s head. This is an enjoyable whodunit due to the Roman background interwoven throughout the historical mystery.