Sunday, June 1, 2008

Review: Nox Dormienda by Kelli Stanley

A history resource article by  © 2008

This is a cross post from my "Books of the Ancient World" blog.  One of the members of the Ancient Roman Reading Group up on Facebook asked about this book today so I updated my review and cross posted it here. Nox Dormienda actually garnered the Bruce Alexander award for historical mystery back in 2008.

"The morning staggered by, still looking for a party. Saturnalia was officially over two days ago - unofficially there were still cockfights and dice throws, more wine-soaked quickies and the odor of vomit filling every alley."

Welcome to Kelli Stanley's world of Roman noir.

I have enjoyed "detectives in togas" for a number of years - particularly a late Roman Republican sleuth named Gordianus the Finder penned from the imagination of Steven Saylor. But I am not familiar with the private eyes that populate the books by Stanley's favorite author Raymond Chandler. Perhaps the closest I have come to this genre is reading James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels. Likewise, I have not shared my son's passion for noir genre films, although Bogart's Casablanca deserves its reputation as a classic. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect when Stanley sent me a copy of her book "Nox Dormienda", the first of a planned series of mystery novels featuring a crime-solving medicus in Agricola's Roman Britain promoted as a new genre, Roman noir.

For a child of the 50s and 60s raised on a diet of traditional historical epics, I found the "snappy-tough" noir-style dialogue jarring at first as I struggled to lose myself in the gritty reality of life in early Londonium. I felt like I had bought a ticket to see "Gladiator" but made a wrong turn inside the cineplex and stumbled into Tarrentino's "Pulp Fiction". But as the novel progressed and I got to know the interesting cast of characters, especially the quirky half-Roman, half-Britain medicus who could be gently caressing a puppy one minute and groping in the abdomen of a nearly eviscerated legionary the next, I succumbed to this author's efforts to conjure up a unique view of ancient Rome and began to enjoy the bumpy ride as Stanley's protagonist tugged me through Londonium's back streets, down into a mithraeum, up the back stairs of a seedy brothel, then into the provincial governor's palace where a weary Agricola, one of Domitian's most successful and honored generals, brooded over rumors of his pending dismissal as he realized his old soldier's boots may not be the best footwear to navigate the tightrope of imperial politics. I think what I enjoyed most was becoming an invisible member of the raucous household of Julius Alpinus Classicianus Favonianus (that's Arcturus to you natives or Ardur to any rheumy-eyed Trinovantean females) whose members so eagerly attempted to assist the Dominus in his investigations.

As a member of the senatorial class, Arcturus does not lead the hand-to-mouth solo existence of Lindsey Davis' Didius Falco. His extended family includes a cook, Venutius, who tries to win Arcturus over with cullinery experiments that often go awry, Draco, a hulking bodyguard with a legendary appetite who must be barely out of his teens as he's still growing out of his tunics, a steward, Brutius, who tries to keep Arcturus' adoring public at bay, Coire, a slave girl who would like to perform in the bedroom but is relegated to the examination room, and a love-struck freedman, Bilicho, who serves as assistant surgeon/gumshoe. As the story progresses, the seductive Gywnna, daughter of an aging Trinovantean auxiliary commander moves in along with her 10-year-old brother Hefin. Then, Bilicho drags home Stricta, his Egyptian girlfriend and one-time prostitute who also happens to be a witness to the murder Arcturus is attempting to solve. Add to this a faithful and much loved dog, Pyxis, her puppies, a cat, and a smattering of chickens and you definitely experience the "urbanity" of Roman life.

The only plot development that struck a sour note with me was introduction of an insane Christian legionary. Stanley seemed compelled to offer insanity as an excuse for his dichotomous behavior. Early Christians were not necessarily the pious, submissive victims of "The Robe", though. The violence of a soldier's profession would not have been viewed as incongruous with Christian teachings. This attitutde is clearly demonstrated several centuries later by the first so-called Christian emperor Constantine. Furthermore, a soldier who zealously berated his bunkmates for their embrace of other relgions of the period, like Mithrascism, would be doubtful in the inclusive polytheism of Roman culture. Acting like a near-zombie, chanting religious mantras with eyes glazed over, would have netted a man a quiet but violent fate in some back alley. The Roman army was still a well-oiled machine at this time and its members would not have tolerated such gum in the works for very long. That is not to say that there weren't any Christian legionaries. I just don't think the behavior exhibited by this character was needed to validate that portion of the plot.

Inevidentably, people who have read my review of Ruth Downie's "Medicus" will ask me how I would compare the two, since both not only feature a Roman medicus as primary protagonist but both set the stage for action in Roman Britain, albeit different time periods. Downie's Ruso is a regular army medicus recently transferred to the XX Legion in the remote port of Deva (now Chester). He is starting over after a ruinous divorce from a socialite wife that has left him almost penniless. His father has also died leaving a mountain of unpaid bills to Ruso and his brother struggling to scratch a living from a small farm in Gaul. Ruso's sense of "dignitas" drives him to not only attempt to reverse his family's financial misfortunes by writing a medical treatise, but to become a reluctant sleuth when a serial killer surfaces in the seedier part of town and no one else seems to view the lives of the unfortunate prostitute victims as worth the trouble. Ruso is a healer first and foremost and only consequentially an investigator. Arcturus, on the other hand, seems to eagerly embrace the opportunity to discover "who done it", welcoming the diversion from the humdrum of the normal practice of the governor's medicus. Both men, though, seem to be equally gifted with the healing arts.

Ruso's world is also decidedly different that than of Arcturus and, with the exception of Ruso serendipitously saving the life of the emperor Trajan in an earthquake, did not include encounters with the famous. But that is not to say that Ruso did not interact with equally intriguing characters. Downie's dilapidated military outpost teemed with vibrantly-drawn people thriving in the cauldron of a remote Roman frontier where two cultures attempted to co-exist. Arcturus' Londonium is nearly as primitive, since it is decades earlier. But, Arcturus' lineage from a native mother married to a Roman centurion provides Arcturus with an internal conflict in which his two halves attempt to co-exist in a single body. So, I would say both novels offer a unique perspective on the Roman experience in Britain and I look forward to the next installment in both of these series.

One last note - I truly appreciate the writing device Kelli Stanley uses to acquaint the reader with common latin references. Each time she uses a latin word, she places it in italics and includes it in a gloassary at the end of the book. Since I have read a number of novels and nonfiction works about the Roman Empire, I was familiar with many of the terms without looking them up. However, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my latin vocabulary. I was particularly pleased to learn that posca was a cheap alcoholic drink made from vinegar and herbs. I had to smile when I read that since it made me think of the personality of Julius Caesar's wannabe-strategist-slave, Posca, in the HBO miniseries, "Rome". I think a blend of vinegar and herbs aptly described him!

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