Bithynia, 103ish AD (Bithynia is now part of Turkey, by the way) a part of the Roman Empire. It’s a wild and unruly part at that, and Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger, has been sent as the new Governor of the province to sort it out – in part because the Emperor Trajan wants to use it as a staging post for an expansion to the East.
Finding the region swimming in corruption, not to mention pagan worship and unscrupulous prophets, Pliny finds himself investigating murder when an official is found dead in the hillside miles from anywhere. But the greatest threat may come from somewhere much closer to home…
Regular readers of my blog will not have been surprised in the slightest when I announce a new theme for reviews – in this case Original Sins, mystery novels set in the Ancient World – and then promptly forget about it. The less said about the heavily truncated Mystery Tour of the USA the better – there are only ten states, yes? But I’ve been out of action for a week or so, either with an incessant headache or the follow-up trip to hospital that it led to. Oh, a quick thank you to all the staff at Southport hospital by the way. You made a grotty time much more bearable. But, as ever, I digress…
This is clearly a labour of love. MacBain is a classicist by day and his obvious love of the age is reflected in more than just the setting. The whole structure of the book has the semblance (as far as I can see) of a tragedy with at least two characters destined for tragedy outside of the primary murder plot. The culmination of the plot strands definitely has a whiff of the ancient tales about it – I’ll say no more, but I don’t think you could get away with it in a modern novel but in this setting, and in this style of book, it’s reasonably fair game.
I’m being briefer than usual here as my recent hospital visit fell between reading the book and writing the review and my memory is a little fuzzy as to the details. As a recreation of the era, I think this is an exceptional piece of work. The detail, the characters all seem true to what I would expect from my relatively limited knowledge and they behave as if they were characters from the time, rather than modern people in funny clothes.
The mystery side? Well, to be fair, it’s more of a conspiracy thriller, as in who’s-doing-what, rather than whodunit, but the story keeps moving forward. At times, it felt as if some strands of the plot were put by the wayside, but when they are revisited, you appreciate the need to have had the character doing or hearing nothing for a period of time. When events unfurl, you need the right level of build-up for the required level of tragedy and MacBain has done this masterfully
So, as a piece of fiction set in the classical era, this is highly recommended. Just beware if you’re looking for a classic-style mystery wearing togas, as you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.