A Gladiator Dies Only Once by Stephen Saylor

A Gladiator Dies Only Once book cover
Rating 8.9/10
A delightful set of small additions to the Sub Rosa series.

Saylor's second release of Gordianus short stories are as delightful as those in the `House of Vestals'. In chronological order he opens with The Consul's Wife, a quick story of newspaper cryptic messages and a paranoid consul with a beautiful and independent young wife who's not adverse to backing a quick sesterce at the races. Swiftly narrated and demonstrative of Gordianus' quick eye and intelligent lateral thinking our super sleuth solves this case carelessly in a matter of hours and takes his fee. The second `If a Cyclops Could Vanish in the Blink of an Eye' is the shortest of the nine and is Bethseda's only real mention during this feline crime. `The White Fawn' has Gordianus scampering west to Spain to meet up with the renegade general Sertorius in order to chase down Mamercus Claudius, a hot-headed youth who has joined up with him against his grandfather's wishes. Gordianus gets dragged into a search for a white fawn that is acting as Sertorius' soothsayer. This story has a darker ending with our first murder of an innocent.

`Something Fishy in Pompeii' appeals to our palatable readers with its focus on industrial espionage over a missing batch of finest garum whilst `Archimedes Tomb' neatly combines the pomposity of Cicero in Syracuse with the infamous `Eureka' and the bath. Here, Gordianus is called upon to solve another murder after a Trimalchio-esque dinner between the merchant men Agathinus and Dorotheus with their pet poet, Margero. Here we find a reference to Tiro and Eco is also along for the ride.

`Death by Eros' deals with unrequited love in a gymnasium as the overly beautiful Cleon is found at the bottom of the pool and his sister Cleio and tutor Mulciber are dragged in. In what I feel is the best story of the lot, `A Gladiator Dies Only Once' Gordianus sits through a munera with Cicero, witnessing the brutality of gladiatorial combat, and is then by recruited by the Nubian, Zuleika, who is searching for her brother Zanzibar whose death isn't quite what it seems. In `Poppy and the Poisoned Cake' we find Lucius Gellius Poplicola, a somewhat stuffy censor, allowing Gordianus to rapidly solve the mystery of his cyanide cake with his wife Palla, and son Lucius but finds himself a pawn in a greater political game which echoes many of the fuller novels. We conclude with a visit to the opulent table of Lucullus and his cherries for a mystery that skips murder entirely and offers Saylor's own conclusion to Lucullus' fading from history.

This is a delightful set of small additions to the Sub Rosa series and serve well to fill in the gaps of the thirty odd years that we have followed our Finder. I sincerely hope more Gordianus come from the pen of Saylor but this may mean he has to move away from creating mysteries based on historical events as those events are fast running out, though having Gordianus involved in the most famous murder of all in 44 BC must surely lure Saylor's pen.

If you're an ancient history murder mystery fan then Saylor's one of the best. Buy it.

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