Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: Medicus, by Ruth Downie

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire (Gaius Petreius Ruso, #1)My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun fast read: I like a good mystery now and then, and of course it doesn't hurt if the book in question happens to be set in Ancient Roman times. Roman Britain, in fact, during the relatively pleasant and peaceful reign of Hadrian. But enough history:

The main attraction here is Gaius Petreius Ruso, divorcée, army medical doctor (medicus, medical... I think I get it!) and reluctant protagonist of this here tale. He is such a stick in the mud! A nice guy at heart but, trouble is, everything seems to be going wrong... his wife left him a few years ago but he still hasn't gotten over it, he's overworked and still lives in squalor... he lives in Britain... and worst of all, he somehow manages to get himself wrapped up in the murders of two prostitutes from a nearby brothel.

Ruso is the classic put-upon patriarch, an old and well-worn character trope which has been a staple of comedies at least as far back as the Romans themselves, and which found success long into the twentieth century (I can name three perfect examples: George Banks from Mary Poppins, Mr. Alonzo Smith from Meet Me in St. Louis, and "father" from E.L. Doctorow's 20s-set historical novel Ragtime). Secure in his faith of his de jure position of authority as a man -- over women, children, slaves, and anything else that moves -- the impotent patriarch is at the same time quite shocked when his de facto influence falls way, way short of his expectations, usually to comic effect. The modern approach of this kind of character is ambivalence at best: glad to see a few cracks in the patriarchal stranglehold, yet full of sad feelings regarding the mere existence, past and present, of that stranglehold. For my part, I say it's good to be back in the days when men were men, slaves were slaves, and cataract surgery was scary as all get out.

Ruso's the main attraction, of course, but a decent supporting cast surrounds him. There's Tilla, the dying native girl Ruso reluctantly buys off some random guy dragging her home -- a real fixer upper. She turns out to be a looker, though, so I guess that counterbalances the whole "sorry I got you wrapped in a ridiculous mystery" thing. Then there's Valens, the handsome, funny, socially at ease fellow doctor and roommate. And Priscus, the balding, bureaucratic administrator of the hospital -- who can really handle himself with a kitchen knife. There are others of course, but they're all women and/or slaves, so you can understand my silence.

This book, it is Roman enough for my tastes -- and modern enough too. "This book could be set at any time period, any place." Well yeah, granted, jokes about British cuisine never go out of style, but surely the Romans have a character all their own! Surely... lead water pipes, slaves, and a life expectancy of thirty-five -- isn't that enough? Ruth Downie, she does a pretty good job. Yeah, yeah, she's not Robert Graves, but then she's not Robert Fagles either (impressed yet? okay, how about Robert Redford? Robbie Williams? Robin Williams? Okay, I better stop...) Like I said, the book is Roman enough -- enough to get me in the mood without tugging and tearing at my poor little overworked brain cells. This delicate balance saw me through to the end of the book, allowing me to overlook the slow start, the just average writing style, and the really rather average mystery tale itself; to shrug my shoulders and go along for the ride. My little local library, for some reason, has every book in this series so maybe I'll go back for a double or even triple dip. *shrug* "When in Deva..." as they say.

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