Monday, April 21, 2008
Book review: Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, by R. S. Downie
Not particularly spoiler-ridden, I don't think.
(A quick note: this book, the first Medicus Investigation, seems to have been operating under several code names. It has also been published in Britain as Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls and in the USA as Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Judging from some reviews on Amazon.co.uk, there has been some confusion.)
I'd like to thank Sarah Cuthbertson for introducing me to these books via a post on her blog. Thank you, Sarah!
Britannia, AD 117. Gaius Petreius Ruso is an army doctor newly stationed at Deva (modern Chester), the fortress of the Twentieth Legion, and he's not having the best time. His family is deeply in debt (thanks to his home improvements-happy stepmother) and it's up to him and his brother to get them out of it. Britannia is a cold, miserable corner of the Roman Empire, and Deva is in the middle of refurbishment. Ruso is looking forward to the wage bonus rumoured to be accompanying the ascension of the Emperor Hadrian, a possible promotion, and some peace and quiet to write his Concise Guide to Military First Aid. Not that he's likely to get it. The chief administrator of the fortress hospital is away and his colleague Valens is sick after eating some bad oysters from Merula's bar. As it turns out, the oysters aren't the only sinister things about Merula's. The body of one of the bar's prostitutes is dredged from the river, and another of the girls has gone missing. Ruso is determined to have nothing to do with trouble, but does anyway. In between dealing with Priscus, the megalomaniac chief administrator, a house full of puppies, and - of course - the mysterious slave girl he impulsively bought from her abusive trader, Ruso finds himself inextricably drawn into the mystery of the disappearing dancing girls. It isn't easy, though: if anyone knows anything, they aren't telling, and it's only a matter of time before Ruso's investigations put him in danger...
I can hear you all thinking, Not another Roman detective series!. But don't worry, Ruso isn't a simple Didius Falco clone, and this is a strong debut from Downie, which bodes well for further books in the series. In her hands, the fortress of Deva becomes a lively army base populated by a whole cast of colourful and memorable characters; from reluctant detective Ruso - world-weary, humane and exasperated with just about everything, and Tilla, Ruso's slave and patient with high British ideals and a penchant for brewing up potions and placing curses, to good-humoured Valens and the oh-so-literal clerk Albanus.
Downie deftly weaves the historical details into the story without making them overbearing, handling the themes with both humour and empathy. The Roman slave trade is a main thread in the story, laying the foundation for the mystery and Ruso's fraught relationship with Tilla. I also liked the incidental details concerning Ruso's medical career. Too often I read books where a character has a potentially interesting job but it never really becomes a part of the story. Ruso, however, is very much a Medicus, and fascinating little snippets of Roman medical procedures (including cataract surgery!) abound without ever having to resort to info-dump. Downie's sense of place is brilliant, too: she brings Deva and its inhabitants to life, especially the fortress hospital, realm of the overweening penpusher Priscus, a place humorously reminiscent of any NHS hospital today! :) The Britannia of Ruso has a distinctly frontier feel to it, too, and the many relationships and tensions between the Roman soldiers and the British tribespeople are also vividly portrayed.
If I have a criticism of the book, it's that the mystery itself took a while to take off. But even then, I can't really complain, as Ruso's other myriad woes, which mostly take up the first part of the book, are engaging enough for me not to mind. When Ruso is increasingly entangled in the sinister goings-on, the pace picks up and the story hurtles towards a gripping climax, which ties up the mystery thread nicely but promises the reader they haven't yet found out all there is to know about Ruso and Tilla.
I'll be honest, I'm not much of a murder mystery reader, but the Roman Britain setting and, above all, the characters of the book reeled me in. Ruso is my favourite kind of protagonist: the hero-despite-himself, and I'll be looking forward to seeing how he and Tilla fare in further investigations. The strong characters, vivid setting and lively mystery all combine to make a thoroughly enjoyable read. In fact, I finished it just this morning and then went straight to buy the sequel, Ruso and the Demented Doctor (US Terra Incognita), as soon as my lectures were over for the day. I'm only on chapter nine so far, but already it's promising to be even better than the first. :)