Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Murder and taxes in Roman Britain

Ruso and the River of Darkness
by R.S. Downie (UK/AU edition)

I do really like well done historical fiction and that is what R.S. Downie delivers every time.  Essentially crime/mystery novels, her Ruso series brilliantly evokes Roman Britain.  Her novels are characterised by solid  plots and memorable, likable characters.  A sense of humour adds appeal and texture to her fiction making these books great relaxing reads.

I should perhaps explain that this is a series that can cause some confusion as the novels are published under different titles in the UK and the US.  In the US this title appears under the title; Caveat Emptor and the authors name is given as Ruth Downie rather than the more ambiguous R.S. Downie.   I discovered this series sometime ago when I picked up a title on the new book shelf at the library.  I new nothing of the book or the author, the title I picked up was the first in the series; Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, a book also published under another title, which may add some confusion if your trying to track down these books.  That chance discovery was indeed the discovery of a little treasure as this series has proven itself to be an ongoing delight.  I have now read all four books currently available and have enjoyed them all. 

The series revolves around Gaius Petreius Ruso a medicus from Gaul attached to the Roman legions in Britain, divorced, plagued by family and financial problems, Ruso is cynical and sardonic but likable, with a knack for adding to his own difficulties.  In the first novel circumstances led him to buy/rescue a slave he couldn't afford and who could, it seemed do nothing but add to his problems.  The slave was a local girl called Tilla.  Tilla is a wonderful invention, a character that leaps off the page with vivid life, she acts as a nice foil to the conventional Ruso.  She consistently refuses a submissive, subordinate role, much to the annoyance of Ruso.  Their relationship forms the basis in the earlier novels for considerable sexual tension and comic effect.  As the series has progressed Tilla has progressed from slave to free servant and in this the latest novel, wife.  Much of the appeal of these novels lies in the characterisations of Ruso and Tilla, the Imperialist invader and the defiant, insubordinate local, both characters have depth and are simply very likable.  In this the latest novel Tilla and Ruso have returned from Gaul to Britain as a married couple and now a new tension is emerging between them.  Domestic tensions have always played out in these novels which gives them a homely depth, while mysteries play out in the foreground of the stories.

In Ruso and the River of Darkness the couple have arrived back in Londinium  and Ruso is desperately seeking work.  It is with reluctance he accepts a job investigating missing tax funds, before long a body turns up and a theft enquiry turns into a murder investigation.  Ruso finds himself mired in local politics and walking a a very fine line, his own life and the life of his wife is at risk.  Downie makes much of the tribal conflicts that define Britain at the time.  Tribalism is an obstacle for both Ruso and Tilla and it is the history of some of the tribes that is evoked in this novel.  The principal suspects are the occupants of Verulamium, the Catuvellauni and into their community an Iceni woman, Camma has been brought as something of a trophy wife.  When Camma is left pregnant, abandoned and alone, Tilla  goes to her aid and involves her self in a dispute Ruso would prefer she stayed out of.  Camma a strong beautiful Iceni woman inspires memories of the feared Boudica.  Downie brilliantly evokes the history and culture of the time, bringing it vividly alive in the day to day experiences and dramas of her characters.  For me the way she has made Roman Britain vividly live on the page has been one of great virtues of her novels. 

This novel is quite complex in terms of the politics involved and in terms of the plot, although the ending was perhaps a little predictable.  It is also a little darker perhaps than the previous novel, Ruso and The Root of all Evils which saw Tilla and Ruso travel to Gaul, it seemed a bit humourless compared to earlier novels but that could be just be a result of my pre-occupation with other things, (a fault in the reader not the book).  I would say that the second novel Ruso and the Demented Doctor and the third novel Ruso and the Root of all Evils are perhaps my favourites in the series.  I did enjoy this novel and I will continue to buy and read R.S. Downie's great historical mysteries, I believe another novel is due out this year and I eagerly look forward to that.  I have also included the link to R.S Downie's blog in the list of author sites worth checking out, she does amongst other things provide interesting information on the time period itself and it is worth checking out for those extras as well as information about the books, the link:

Now I am moving onto something quite different for me, a book a friend lent me and it is not my usual kind of read.


  1. R.S. Downie is a new author to me, so thanks for the recommendation. Historical crime/mystery isn't something I usually read, but it will be good to stretch my horizons a little bit.

  2. I intend to round this up for a read. I have recently completed the 20+ book (so far) Drizzt Do'Urden series by R A Salvatore, and have been aching for something to fill the void. This work, which is desribed as a group of disparate friends working toward a common goal, seems to share that theme with Drizzt & Co. It seems I have some detective work to do, so I'd best get to it. Thanks again for a fine recommendation!

  3. I just hope it dosn't disappoint. I have been a bit slack in replying but belatedly thankyou for the comments.