Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: Pompeii: A Tale of Murder in Ancient Rome by Robert Colton

An ancient-themed historical fiction review by  © 2013

An ice storm and four day power outage gave me the opportunity to finally read a Kindle version of this book by new author, Robert Colton.

A fictional 19-year-old protagonist named Marcellus Sempronius Gracchus (yes, a descendant of the famous Gracchi brothers) and his Egyptian slave, Tay, are touring Roman sites around the Mediterranean before Marcellus reports for military duty in Syria when Marcellus receives a letter from his uncle that his father is dying in Rome.  The uncle provides all of the transportation arrangements for Marcellus to return home so Marcellus and Tay board a ship to return them to the Roman mainland.  It is late in the sailing season and a difficult passage results in the ship needing to stop for supplies in Pompeii.  There, Marcellus witnesses a funeral procession for a local magistrate that catches his attention.  His interest is piqued still further when a trip to the baths yields gossip that the magistrate was probably murdered.  But Marcellus cannot linger to learn anything more.

When Marcellus and Tay resume their journey, they find that an elderly freedman named Darvus, who has boarded their ship, carries a letter from the widow they had witnessed in the funeral procession to a woman named Helen in Rome.  But the obviously ill old man dies before they reach their destination.  Before dying, however, Darvus asks Marcellus to deliver the letter for him and this task serves as the event that will launch Marcellus and Tay on an investigation that will be the basis of the plot for the rest of the novel.

Colton does a good job of recreating the ancient world, fleshing out his characters and writing dialogue. But as you read the backstory of his protagonist, Marcellus, you discover he is a rather feckless young man who has very little ambition and has spent much of his time since donning his toga virilus chasing married women and drinking himself insensible.  His slave companion, Tay, in contrast, is far more  astute in the ways of business and social relationships and experienced in physical combat.  Where Marcellus is an outright coward, Tay faces threats with a clear head and, if need be, a swift, lethal response, making Tay the more dynamic character.  But Tay is not framed as the main character, creating a problem with balance in the narrative.

When the pair arrive in Rome, Marcellus is surprised to find his hateful father still alive and we learn that father and son have had a contentious relationship for most of Marcellus' life.  When Marcellus mistakenly sends the secretive Helen the wrong letter from the stack in his father's office, Helen storms into Marcellus' home during the morning salutatio and confronts Marcellus in front of his father, who promptly suffers a fatal heart attack.  His father's old clients waiting in the atrium rush in and see blood all over the floor and will not believe Marcellus' father merely struck his head on the corner of his desk when he fell.  Helen, not wishing to become involved with imperial prosecutors, rushes away and Marcellus, without a corroborating witness is wrongly accused of patricide.  So, Marcellus and Tay must flee Rome to escape retribution from the unstable emperor, Nero.

As the pair gallop back toward Pompeii, slave and patrician reverse roles as a disguise in an attempt to elude authorities .  This plot twist, however, further exacerbates the character imbalance between the protagonist and his slave companion as Tay is now dressed as a wealthy Roman merchant and Marcellus is following along in the role of a mute valet.

On the road to Pompeii, Marcellus and Tay cross paths once more with Helen who has left Rome to return to Pompeii as instructed by the mysterious letter.  Marcellus is desperate for Helen to bear witness to the actual events leading up to his father's death to clear him.  But the heavily pregnant Helen is already engaged in a secret mission for the widow Fabia in Pompeii and tells Marcellus his favor must wait until she fulfills her other obligations.

But Helen meets a grisly end before she can bear witness for Marcellus.  So Marcellus and Tay must find Helen's companion, Marcus, who has also disappeared, to act as witness.

Once back in Pompeii, Tay, now a Roman businessman named Octavius Regulus with a mute valet named Demetrius (the former Marcellus),  plans is to embed himself in Pompeii society so he and Marcellus will not be viewed as suspicious as they investigate people who might know where Marcus may be hiding.  Tay begins by entering into a business relationship with a pretentious brothel owner named Popidius. (Marcellus has sent a secret letter to his wealthy friend Petronius requesting financial help and Petronius has responded with the delivery of a heavily laden strongbox.  So, money is the least of their worries at this point.)

But, the devastating earthquake of 62 CE (some sources claim 63 CE) strikes Pompeii and Regulus and Demetrius are left with a brothel full of alluring women and murder suspects lurking behind toppled columns and collapsed buildings.

I thought Colton did a particularly good job of describing the aftermath of the earthquake and the rescues and rebuilding efforts of Pompeii's citizens.  He also describes the activities of the brothel and religious activities of the period quite well, too.

But a weak protagonist who simply allows himself to be propelled by events rather than driving the plot is a fatal flaw in the narrative and diminishes the story's overall impact.

Although the murder mystery is ultimately resolved, I found it disconcerting that Marcellus was never vindicated for the death of his father and never can be under the parameters established by the author (which I found unconvincing in the first place).  So, I'm afraid the ending left me unsatisfied.  But I admire the obvious research and hard work that went into this first effort.
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