A Novel of the Roman Empire
By Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury USA, Hardcover, 9781596912311, 400pp.
Publication Date: March 6, 2007
Gaius Petrius Ruso is a divorced and down-on his luck army doctor who has made the rash decision to seek his fortune in an inclement outpost of the Roman Empire, namely Britannia. His arrival in Deva (more commonly known as Chester, England) does little to improve his mood, and after a straight thirty six hour shift at the army hospital, he succumbs to a moment of weakness and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner.
Now he has a new problem: a slave who won't talk and can't cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the local bar. A few years earlier, after he rescued Emperor Trajan from an earthquake in Antioch, Ruso seemed headed for glory: now he's living among heathens in a vermin-infested bachelor pad and must summon all his forensic knowledge to find a killer who may be after him next.
Who are the true barbarians, the conquered or the conquerors? It's up to Ruso certainly the most likeable sleuth to come out of the Roman Empire to discover the truth. With a gift for comic timing and historic detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.
Published in the UK as "Medicus (Ruso) and the Disappearing Dancing Girls.
"The real achievement here is the lavishly, often hilariously detailed portrayal of the world that absorbs Ruso’s exhausted wits and energies (Downie even manages a few good jokes about English cuisine). And in cheerful mutual insults exchanged between Ruso and his colleague and rival Valens, we hear again the effervescent voices of M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye and Trapper John. And Ruso is a wonderful character, fueled by a dyspeptic machismo and sullen charm reminiscent of Harrison Ford in his heyday. A charming novel." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "It’s such a pleasure—because it’s such a rare experience—to come across a completely well done piece of commercial fiction. What a pro Ruth Downie is, and this is only her first book. I don’t know if she closely researched her story (set in Britain during the Roman occupation in the time of the emperor Trajan). I do know that everything about the story, its setting and its people seems compellingly real. Her protagonist, a Roman army doctor named Gaius Petreius Ruso, is likeable company. His adventures as an amateur sleuth, which begin when he autopsies a dead woman pulled from a nearby river, are drolly rendered. And his low-key romance—so low key that he’s the last to realize it is a romance—with a local woman who loathes her Roman overlords is both comic and touching at once. The highest praise I can offer this wonderfully entertaining portrait of the Roman Empire at its most far-flung is that I hope Downie is planning a series. Ruso is too good a character for just one book."--Malcolm Jones, Newsweek “I loved this book.”—Scott Simon, NPR
“[A] lavishly, often hilariously detailed portrayal of the world that absorbs Ruso’s exhausted wits and energies. [He] is a wonderful character, fueled by a dyspeptic machismo and sullen charm reminiscent of Harrison Ford in his heyday. A charming novel.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The highest praise I can offer this wonderfully entertaining portrait of the Roman Empire at its most far-flung is that I hope Downie is planning a series. Ruso is too good a character for just one book.”—Malcolm Jones, Newsweek