The Cyclops Case by Alan Scribner (A Judge Marcus Flavius Severus Mystery in Ancient Rome #2)

I am pleased to say this second effort of Scribner's is better than his first. I rather enjoyed the mystery here, not "guessing/deducing" the culprit before the denouement at Judge Severus' final gathering in Baiae.

The story concerns the murder in Rome's seaside resort of two people. A curiosi (read "Secret Service") named Publius Bassianus and General Gnaeus Avidianus Nepos (cognomen Cyclops) have wound up dead. One from a clonk on the head, the other with a dagger through his remaining eye. Public hysteria means there is a fear that a serial killer by the sobriquet of 'Odysseus' is murdering people using methods described in Homer's 'The Odyssey.' He may be on dubious jurisdiction, but Severus has been ordered to investigate and an anxious Town Council is keen to wrap if the case before tourism takes a mighty hit. It's not quite so easy as a trip to the Blue Oyster Bar to work matters out and by the end of the book two more are dead... the culprit is a busy person - involved in a court martial in Judea, a counterfeiting ring in Antioch and the series of murderous events in Baiae over the course of the month and four days that the novel spans.

Scriber keeps his assortment of characters from the first novel. Vulso gets more of a look in as the hard-hitting ex-Centurion. Straton is less evident. There's a few newbies: Proculus, Flaccus and Eclectus. All of them are needed to puzzle out the lies and misdeeds of Galba, Galliancus, Carbo, Herminius, Ambibulus, Meherdates et al. who are all prepared to inveigle their way out of the relentless Stoic pursuance of the suave Severus.

I'll pick up on a few "errors." Examples include:

  • Historical - Scribner has his hero muse: "Then Persia, as we call that country, or Iran as they Persians, call it." The term Iran was coined in Persia under the rule of Ardashir the Unifier who ruled from 206A.D. Given the events of the book are in 161A.D. there is no way Severus would have known this.
  • Typos - "the Flaccus, prodding." "it's" (for "its")
  • Modern parlance - "smog", "blurbs", "didactically, "police", "lucre", "hotel", "vagabond", "shacks", "nymphomaniac", "booty", "international character", "safe-deposit repositories", "I want the sauce on the side", "the Milky Way", "homicide" There;'s a bit too much of this being used by the characters. Their language needs more realism.

There's also the humorous description "a crashing orgasm". Never heard it described like that before, but Scribner professes to know second century Rome, so I'll have to accept it, I guess.

The novel allows Scriber to delve into his favourite pastime of educating the reader, though he's cut back on it somewhat from the first novel, thankfully. The passages on Homer are necessary for the plot, the lengthy didactic on frumentarii is unnecessary given the curiosi have a tiny part in the book. I've come to expect Severus soliloquies/monologues on philosophies and the small details regarding Eastern cults is also integral to the plot (or at least to one blind alley).

In conclusion, the pace of this is better than the previous effort; Severus is still a stuffy, boring lead sleuth, but his associates more than make up for his shortcomings. The mystery is confusing enough to hold our attention throughout; the action, right from the first beach to the digging in the villas at the end, is bright and believable.

Not bad at all. I will definitely look for the next one.

8/10 Not bad at all. I will definitely look for the next one.

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