Mars the Avenger by Alan Scribner

Rating 6.0/10
I quite liked it and I will be reading the next one.

Alan Scribner's first effort almost lost me but it was saved with some neat action and some interesting sidekick personalities - namely ex-Centurion Vulso and Greek slave Straton. I say this because the main character, Judge Severus, is especially boring. He spends all his time educating the reader in a manner that is slightly patronising. As a manifestation of the author, he stuffs in as many Latin terms (with translations), describes as many Roman legal processes, festivals, beliefs, deities et al. as he can. It comes across as an exercise in "look what I know" from the author rather than of any practical literary value.

Thrown into the mix is a philosophical grandstanding - particularly heavy on Stoicism - with sleuthing deduction both logical and legal. Scribner likes to show us he's well read in classical authors. For example:

"the judge should decide who's telling the truth and who's lying by taking into consideration who the witnesses are, their status in society, their reputation..." Hadrian
"If every tool could, at the word of command, go back to work by itself... then employers would dispense with workers and masters dismiss their slaves." Aristotle
"we are fellow slaves, if you realise that Fortune has the same sway over everyone." Seneca
"deterrence and reformation: the one to prevent people from committing crimes, the other to prevent the criminal from persevering." Plato
Aside from all this, the plot of the novel concerns the discovery on the steps of the Temple of Mars of one Anaximander, long-lost lover of Fabia, wife of unhinged Senator Ferox, who has disappeared along with her slave Phryne. Severus has six days to work out where the missing wife is and discover a murderer. By sending out his bad cop "Vulso" and good cop "Straton" to ask some questions he's able to deduce what has happened. A Roman symposium (yanked straight out of a dinner with Petronius' Trimalchio) allows Scribner to give us a Hercule Poirot-esque denouement about the events surrounding Timotheus, Menelaus, Phryne, Fabia, Ferox, Anaximander, and Croesus.

The scenes are limited - we get little description of ancient Rome other than what Scribner has read about. He keeps it safe with Severus' home, the Circus Maximus, a Latium Villa, the Suburan apartments, a slave trader emporium, a lover's apartment. The action is as precisely plotted as the deduction, to be honest.

There are some editing problems such as the lowercase use of "prefect" when it should be "Prefect", use of words that simply would not have existed at the time like "siesta", "police", "Spanish"; strange modern descriptions like "youths frolicked in wrestling and boxing". These don't overly matter now, but will if they are consistently used in later books.

This might all sound a trifle harsh but this is Scribner's first effort and thus it needs a more critical eye than book four or five when we are comfortable with his characters. Severus doesn't have the lovable personality of Wishart's Marcus Corvinus, or Davies Didius Falco and he's intellectually similar to Saylor's Gordianus or Rowe's Libertus; it will prove a problem unless he becomes more likeable but the novel IS saved by the supporting cast, all of whom are personable. Then again, the novel is all about Roman interpretation of Stoicism and our lead sleuth exudes it from every pore.

In summary, I quite liked it and I will be reading the next one. Stick with it, it might prove to be a worthy addition to the pantheon of Roman fictional sleuths.

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