This is the fourth Ruso mystery by R.S. Downie and the third book in the series I have read (unfortunately for me, I read them all out of order). I didn't find it quite as charming as book one and book three, but it picked up during the last third. It's also refreshing to find a detective who really isn't one and doesn't have everything figured out twelve minutes before everyone else (eat your heart out, Sherlock Holmes).
River of Darkness begins in a tax office.
'We don't deal with husbands and wives here. This is the finance office.''I know this is the finance office! I am not stupid.'
As ever, the difficulties of living in Roman Britain come to the fore. While Ruso experienced violence between the unconquered northern tribes and the Roman bringers of civilization (ha!) in Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (and met his future wife Tilla through this), River of Darkness is about Verulamium (that's St Albans to you and me), a Romanized city trying very hard to prove to the Empire that it would make a great place for Emperor Hadrian to visit ('They're more enthusiastic about being Roman than most of Rome is'). The book finds Ruso out of work in Londinium.
There are many repeat characters from previous adventures and several new faces. Valens, Ruso's old roommate from Deva, who's been having some marital problems; Albanus, Ruso's former clerk from his Army days; Metellus, a shady character who holds Ruso's wife's fate in his hands; and of course the ever-resourceful Tilla herself. The new faces include Ruso's boss the Procurator; the Procurator's nephew, short-sighted Firmus; Camma the Iceni whose intrusion into the tax office sets the story in motion; Caratius her Romano-British husband; Dias, a British auxiliary; not to mention dozens of inhabitants of Verulamium. In Ruso's mind, all of these people are usually in the process of annoying him or obstructing him from doing his job.
Firmus was enjoying himself. 'I must say,' he said, 'this Procurating business is much more fun than I thought. Secret messages and stolen money and mystery men and murders. It must be even better being an investigator.''It's very dangerous, sir,' put in Albanus, speaking from experience.
'And there's a lot of tedious routine,' added Ruso.
Having read the David Mattingly book, I feel soothed by the fact that Downie's research is up-to-date. The book is investigating the real attitudes of Romanized Britons as much as it is any murder-mystery. 'The Britons are a tricky bunch,' the Procurator warns Ruso. 'Even the ones who speak Latin and know how to use a bath-house. You can never tell what they're thinking.' The Roman system of hierarchy can at times be as incomprehensible to us as it may have seemed to the Britons.
'But I thought . . .' There was a tremor in the youth's [Firmus'] voice. 'Ruso, I thought you were my friend.' .. .'I'm sorry, sir,' he said, seeing hurt and bewilderment in the lad's eyes. 'I hope I've served you well. But we can't ever be friends.'
When Ruso finally makes it Verulamium, an old soldier named Publius gives him a suitably cynical breakdown of the way things are really run versus the official version passed down to Londinium. Ruso manages to be both a typical and an atypical Roman, though one wonders if that is partially to do with the double standard that Tilla sums up neatly here: “Roman men, who seemed to have one standard for women and another one for wives . . .”
There are the continued amusements of Tilla sort-of turning to Christianity, which she took up in Gaul in Ruso and the Root of All Evils. “In response to her question, the women said they did not know of any followers of Christos in the town. In fact they had never heard of Christos.” It takes the entirety of the book for Ruso and Tilla to work out their marital problems, which center around the fact that Tilla may not ever be able to have children. “Picturing himself carrying a small son or even a daughter on his shoulders gave him an inexplicable sense of warmth and contentment, but had his own part in the procedure been as troublesome—not to mention dangerous—as this, he might have wondered whether it was worth the bother.” Their fate is left open-ended, though Tilla has summed up their relationship by noting that she stays with him because he always tries to do the right thing.
There's a great deal of enjoyable story having to do with faking coins, and just when you think it's all going to end in misery, Ruso proves he's a lot more intelligent than he sometimes seems. Furthermore, even the villains in this story are not unsympathetic.
I'm sure there's a fifth book, and despite liking this one less than the other two I had read, I will definitely read more in the series.