As the back of the book tells you, it’s 117 AD, and Medicus Ruso would rather be anywhere other than the cold, dilapidated fort at Deva (that’s Chester to you and me). R.S. Downie’s first Ruso mystery unwinds slowly, setting up its universe with plenty of time to draw one into the central whodunit. As Downie admits later and as I now know to be true, depicting Britain in the 2nd century is a task done with creativity and conjecture founded in what little hard evidence (both literary and archaeological) that we have. Still, I find Downie’s Deva to be written with both confidence and expertise. For example, the Aesculpian Thanksgiving Fund which she invents had the ring of truth to it, especially given it was such a central element of the plot. Ruso’s relationship with the medical god feels authentic; poor Ruso is a man with a conscious in a wicked world, which is immediately endearing and gives him a sense of everyman quality. He grouses endlessly about his troubles (to both his friends and to us, his unseen audience) but he (almost) always does the right thing.
Ruso’s waiting for payday, trying to support his struggling farming family back in Gaul (see book 3) and maintain a decent lifestyle at his posting while striving for the coveted role of Chief Medical Officer. He is thrust—much against his will—into befriending and medically treating a British slave (we eventually know her as Tilla) as well as investigating the suspicious deaths of some barmaids. Downie’s writing is often very funny.
The grey light of dawn was making its way around the shutters of a house that contained three people. Two were asleep. The third was grappling with the problem of women’s underwear. Where could a man get hold of some? Discreetly? As if that were not bad enough, there would be the monthly business to deal with at any moment.
There’s a reason this series is (sometimes) billed as the Ruso and Till Investigations, as Tilla quickly becomes an incorrigible part of Ruso’s life. She is at least as lively a character as he is (still true in the third book). She is a bad cook, stares boldly at men unlike a demure Roman woman, and “makes medicine” at a sacred grove. It seems almost a foregone conclusion, post-Eagle of the Ninth, that for a Roman story in Britain to work, it has to have the participation (and view point) of a Briton; reconciling their differing viewpoints (especially given Tilla is a slave in the first book) is challenging. Ruso is a Roman and thinks and acts like one; Tilla never forgets that she is being oppressed, yet, like Esca, her relationship with her Roman is strong enough to allow them to operate in some workable fashion. This book is all about the similarities between our age and the Roman one, but of course there are issues that just have to be presented in black-and-white. “The Druids are all gone . . . the Army kill them all,” she tells Ruso when he accuses her of colluding with Druids. However, Ruso has his humanity; he has taken the Hippocratic oath, after all. “The idea that Saufeia had been killed because the locals were jealous of the Army’s suave sophistication was not something he had considered.”
The plot here is quite exciting, with building accidents, fires, sinister plots, bouncers, prostitutes, and puppies galore. Moreover, although I’m not quite sure I 100% understood the conclusion, it seemed more complex than the one in The Root of All Evils. Valens, Ruso’s housemate, who appeared only briefly in the third book, comes off here as something between Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill and the archetypal gay best friend (though his apparent love of the ladies belies this latter interpretation), is very funny and yet sometimes Ruso’s antagonist. There are some other good characters, like Decimus the overfond hospital porter and Merula’s bar-girls. There are some very amusing conversations that Tilla has with some other Britons: “Your Roman,” says the girl Sabrann. “[He’s] not such a shortarse as most of them.” Furthermore, Tilla overhears one of her extended clan say to another, “He said ancilla. Ancilla means slave.” “Never mind what ancilla means. She’s not his slave. She’s his woman.”
I do confess to going quite gooey-eyed at the eventual romance between Ruso and Tilla (echoing the one between Fidelma and Eadulf in Tremayne, perhaps?). Their sort of double act involves a lot of headbutting:
“The person who tell—who told you is Chloe, isn’t it?”
“Whatever you say, my lord.”
“You are a very stubborn woman.”
“Yes, my lord. Whatever you say.”
The ending, though simple, is also intensely romantic.
I’ll definitely continue reading this series.