It’s 314 AD and a body-ripping, eye-gouging killer of Rome’s prostitutes, the Nefandus, has returned after years of absence to haunt the night. In the meantime Attius Enobarbus, a henchman of the previous emperor Maxentius and keeper of the secret of the location of the tomb of Peter the Galilean, is found stabbed in the back, despite having locked himself securely in his own vault-like chambers. Emperor Constantine has plans for Rome but the ex-deacon Valentinius has his own schemes. As more and more people fall in the streets, how exactly is Claudia, special agent to the Empress supposed to bring order to the chaos?
This is the fourth and most recent of Doherty’s Rome series featuring Claudia and friends, and, just like the Corbett, Athelstan and Roger Shallot books (first review coming very soon), his description of life in a far-off time and place is stunning. Horrible notions, such as the acceptance that one may be killed when walking the streets at night without anyone batting an eyelid, are the norm in Ancient Rome and if nothing else, I felt I learned a lot about Roman life that I didn’t know before. But this book is more than just a history lesson. Isn’t it?
Of course it is. There are a number of mysteries to solve – who was the original Nefandus? Has he returned, or is there a copycat? Who killed Attius and how? What is going on in Byzantium? And most creepily of all, who is that in the opening sequence having a conversation with a crucified, lacquered skeleton?
Some of the mysteries are easier to spot than others. I’d say my success rate was about 50/50, but some of the revelations, in particular the opening sequence explanation, are exceptional. I had to get my jaw off the floor after that one. The locked room is also well done, although I thought some of the more obvious explanations were dismissed too easily. There’s also a very impressive twist that seems almost out of place in such a book, being more typical of a different author who I won’t name, as it might blow the surprise.
Oh, I do feel that I should mention that even though the Nefandus’ crimes are quite horrible, the detail is not dwelt upon. This isn’t a lurid serial-killer schlocker. Not by a long shot.
If I had a small niggle, I’d say that Claudia is a bit bland, but, as I’ve discovered with Hugh Corbett, I might have felt differently if I had read these books in sequence – time to go and hunt down Murder Imperial, the first in the series, methinks. Claudia is, however, surrounded by an entertaining bunch of rogues and as such, there’s always something to grab the attention.
Anyway, this comes recommended. Not quite the heights of The White Rose Murders, but you certainly won’t be bored with this one.
WHERE CAN I GET IT?
I found it in Waterstones (after my chat with the lady in charge of the crime section) so you probably can too. It’s from 2008 so it’s still in print.
WARNING: I’ve just read the first of the series, Murder Imperial, and it’s very easy to spot the villain due to most of the suspects appearing in this later book. So I recommend reading that (and very good it is too) first.