Rosemary Rowe






Sixth in the Libertus Mystery Series
Headline Book Publishing, 2004
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Roman Britain, 187 A.D.

Libertus is a humble guest at a banquet given by his patron, Marcus Aurelius Septimus, personal representative of the governor of Britain. The guests of honor are Marcus’s co-rulers, Balbus and Praxus. Britain is well rid of Praxus when he dies in the vomitorium after dinner, but it is unfortunate indeed when Marcus is arrested for his murder. 

Libertus, Marcus’s freedman advisor, doesn’t have much chance to investigate the death before he, too, is on the run. Praxus’ brutal Guards are hunting for him, and it looks very much like they intend to kill him. More-or-less officially, he is wanted because he is closely connected to Marcus. Unofficially, the murder and destruction in the wake of the Guards’ hunt for Libertus looks like they are conducting a cover-up for the true killer.

Libertus undergoes a sudden decrease in intelligence and effectiveness in Book Six of this series. Desperation leads him to the Ghosts of Glevum, a band of beggars and thieves who barely manage to survive outside the town. The band has him over a barrel. Libertus doesn’t dare show his face to do any detecting; the only hope for himself, Marcus, and their families is if the Ghosts find answers to the questions Libertus can’t ask.

The most interesting section of the book is the part dominated by the Ghosts. Sosso, the dwarf leader, is a clever strategist who rules the group without question. Lercius has a crazed love of death and torture, but obeys Sosso. Cornovacus will steal anything, anywhere, from anyone. Parva is a marred prostitute, barely successful enough to stay alive. Other members of the band and their friends are mostly identified by description; they are intriguing descriptions, but when I read the section again later, several of their names still weren’t clear.

There is little historical evidence about life among the homeless castoffs of the Roman Empire, but references show that they did exist. Author Rosemary Rowe has done a believable job of deducing what life must have been like for them. Libertus’ time with the Ghosts is clothed in such authentic-seeming detail that we almost experience it with him. By contrast the wealthy Julia, Marcus’s wife, lacks the intense visuals that make the group of Ghosts stick in my mind. It seems to me that Rowe, feeling free to invent, was especially thorough in her imaginings, but tended to take the better-known life of the wealthy for granted. In general, Rowe’s research on Roman Britain explores every area she can think of, and she stuck to the facts as well as they are known when she fleshed this world out so successfully.

The series has made two marked changes during its first six books. With the first book, temptingly named THE GERMANICUS MOSAIC, Libertus is established as a freed slave now eking out a living as a professional mosaic maker. He resents the calls on his time by Marcus, a spoiled aristocrat whose high government position comes from prominent relatives. The two have a competitive relationship. In the third book, incorrectly named MURDER IN THE FORUM (none of the several murders occurs in a forum), Libertus and Marcus are suddenly friends, with a relationship of mutual dependence.

The second change has to do with the author’s apparent motivations. In MURDER IN THE FORUM, Rowe started what became a contest with herself. She began working hard to put Libertus into a worse crunch in each book than in the previous one. After the fourth book, THE CHARIOTS OF CALYX – the fascinating high point of the series with its vivid, individual characters – her interest in this challenge seems to have replaced her interest in mystery-solving. Libertus unwillingly finds himself up against the rich and powerful; at any moment he might be ground to death by the powers-that-be as he scrambles for truth and justice. You might be like me and prefer your mysteries to be human-interest detective puzzles instead of struggles for survival. In that case Book Five, THE LEGATUS MYSTERY, and THE GHOSTS OF GLEVUM would not be for you.

The worst, most corrupt official of them all during this time is the paranoid killer Emperor Commodus. The title of Book Seven is ENEMIES OF THE EMPIRE, released in Britain last month. I can feel another confrontation between Libertus and officialdom coming on.

August 2005 Review


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