Ruso and the Root of All Evils
I’m not one for starting mystery series in the middle, (I’m not a habitual mystery reader in general) but I took a chance on R.S. (Ruth) Downie’s Roman sleuth named Ruso in his third outing. I’m pleased to say I became a confirmed fan and hope to read more in the series soon. It helps that I’m reading or have read four works about Roman Britain in the last three months, and though Root of All Evils (marketed as Persona non Grata in the US; I have no idea why) is set Gaul, it’s the same century as The Eagle of the Ninth—so it’s a comfortable territory for me. The whodunit is, in conclusion, not nearly as sophisticated as, say, Fred Vargas or even Peter Tremayne, but that didn’t really matter. I liked Ruso’s character and that of his common-law wife Tilla, the book was well-written and seemed competently researched, and in parts it was absolutely hilarious. Vargas is always funny, but in a very dark way. Ruso makes for an entirely enjoyable read.
Novels such as Wolf Hall will sometimes have dramatis personae listings, but never in my life have I read one more entertaining and less onerous than Downie’s here. If only Tolstoy could have managed something similar, I might have been able to get through War and Peace. When we meet Ruso, he’s an army surgeon in Deva (Chester), and the opening dialogue with the ubiquitous “mate” caused me some concern, as I don’t warm to ultra-modern dialogue in Roman settings (“The Fires of Pompeii” is a case in point, I’m afraid). However, I quickly adjusted to the semi-modern dialogue (which works fairly well with Ruso’s family, and Tilla’s imperfect command of Latin starts to sound as if she is a Romanian working in modern-day Britain!)
Tilla (Darlughdacha of the Corionotate of the Brigantes) is a great character, a tall, blonde Briton with attitude. I understand that she and Ruso are introduced and become an item in the first book; by the Root of All Evils she is his partner and a midwife in the community, although his not having told his family in Narbonensis about her will lead to trouble as surely as her uncompromising British nature. “There is not so much for you to do now was one of the rare allusions which either of them had made to the Army’s apparent success in crushing a native rebellion far more ferocious than anyone had expected.” Back in what will be Nîmes, Ruso’s family is in trouble in more ways than one: his extravagant stepmother, his somewhat befuddled younger brother Lucius, his teenaged half-sisters who surely belong in Essex, his innumerable nephews and nieces are all in debt and about to be implicated in a murder investigation. And that doesn’t even bring in Ruso’ ex-wife, married to the murdered man. Lured home by a mysterious letter, Ruso finds his brother insolvent, his step-mother trying to set him up with the next-door entrepreneurial widow, his half-sisters clamouring for dowries so they can marry gladiators, and nephews and nieces who destroy everything in sight. With a bum leg, it’s a lot for a man to talk in.
I empathize with Tilla especially, given she turns up on her (practically) in-laws ill-dressed in wool, her fair skin sunburnt, totally unprepared for life in a Roman villa where everyone has been fed propaganda about “barbarians” anyway. “The people were not what she had been expecting, either. The fine fleece that had taken much of the journey to spin would stay bundled up in the luggage. She did not want the humiliation of presenting it as a gift and having to watch the stepmother find something polite to say about it.” Tilla is very smart and also quite brave and in fact she is quite caring, in her way.
As mentioned in my review of The Silver Branch, The Root of All Evils has a hilarious depiction of a 2nd century British pagan’s reaction to Christianity when she is invited to a prayer meeting (the running joke being the Lord is supposed to be there but he never shows up). The full scene is worth quoting:
‘Mighty God who is everywhere!’ She had never tried praying in Latin. It felt like trying to run in somebody else’s shoes. ‘This is Tilla, Darlughdacha of the Corionotate amongst the people of the Brigantes in Britannia.’ Nobody else had bothered to introduce themselves, she remembered now, but the god who was everywhere might have been busy somewhere else when she was named the first time. ‘I pray you will free my people from the Army who have stolen the land that is rightly ours and hunted down and murdered our holy men and women.’
She paused to draw breath. The ‘Amen’ that filled the gap was hesitant. ‘I pray you will heal the Medicus’ foot even though he is proud and stubborn and will not rest it.’
This time the ‘Amen!’ was fulsome.
‘Make his family wise and his sisters honourable.’
‘Amen!’ She was doing better now.
‘And I ask you to reveal the true poisoner so he will not be blamed for it.’
Silence. She opened her eyes and caught several worshippers swiftly closing theirs.
‘Great God, make his sister-in-law strong and comfort her mourning for her brother and may she know she will see him in the next world.’
There was a chorus of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Yes, Lord!’
‘And the man or men, or woman or women, who gave them that rotten old ship, may they never rest!’
A lone ‘Amen!’ from one of the old women.
There is a great deal more merriment to be had from Tilla’s interpretation of the Gospel, especially when she tries to use it to comfort a family of British slaves in Arelate.
There is a lot more to enjoyable about this book, but I’ll let you discover it for yourself. As a final note, I love when a historical novelist gives a few sources at least, and Downie is more than obliging.