London Sunday Times / March 7, 1999


Saylor: his scholarship is breathtaking,
his writing enthrals

Photograph: R Solomon

The Roman knows

The Venus Throw
by Steven Saylor
Robinson £6.99 pp368

by Ruth Rendell

The title of Steven Saylor’s novel comes from a throw at dice, when all four dice, the rectangular anklebones of sheep painted with numbers, come up different. Venus, he tells us, craves variety. His marvellously readable book is full of such facts, and is even richer in architectural curiosities, cultic lore,sartorial glories and esoteric detail than its predecessors. Who would have imagined Romans as collectors of antiques, prizing, for instance, couches saved from the flames of Carthage? Saylor tells us that “Jupiter” is onomatopeia for lightning striking the earth; that “Zeus” captures the sound of a thunderbolt cutting through the air; that gay patricians at the baths made a head-scratching gesture when seeking companionship with their own sex, and that a popular poison was called Gorgon’s Hair.

It is hard sometimes to remember that he is writing detective stories. The setting, the personalities, the insights and the light shed on human behaviour are so much more than the puzzle and its solution. The strength of crime novels lies traditionally in their plots, but in general Saylor’s are the least good thing about his work. The Venus Throw is an exception; the machinations of its mostly appalling characters are never buried under all his textural wealth, and its outcome is a stunning surprise.

Historical events are always included and real people among his cast. In the past, we have had Cicero and Catiline. This time it is Clodia Pulchra, Caelius, and no less a figure than Catullus. They live in a world peopled by slaves, plebeians, drinkers, debauchees, sequestered maidens and eunuchs dedicated to the cult of the Great Mother. Lasciviousness is everywhere, cruelty is rife and murder, especially of a slave, committed with impunity. Here, too, is Gordianus the Finder, no doubt so-called because he always cuts the knot nobody else can unravel.

The best male detectives in fiction, ancient and modern, are celibates or faithful to their wives. The reader may admire and envy the womanising sleuth, but never quite trusts him. When we first met Gordianus in Roman Blood he was a young man with the beautiful mistress he bought in the slave market of Alexandria. Gordianus has prospered through his own detective genius as well as some lucky windfalls, has a fine house on the Palatine Hill, and when we meet him for the fifth time he has manumitted Bethesda — no accident surely that her name means the House of Mercy — and married her when she became the mother of his daughter. Along the way, he has adopted two sons, one of whom he rescued from a life of beggary, the other from death.

For Gordianus, although a man of his times, is among those Romans who, while never questioning the principle of slavery, treat slaves with decency and compassion. In spite of repeated temptation, this time from Clodia aka Lesbia, he remains a constant husband. And not too excessive a drinker, though occasionally carousing with Catullus in the Salacious Tavern. The intrigue begins with the murder of Dio, the Egyptian philosopher, whose pupil Gordianus once was and who has been dining with him in his house. Poison is ruled out, because when the body was found stab wounds were the cause of death.

It is something of an irony that the word “forensic” comes from the forum where the Romans held their courts of law, for writers of mysteries set in ancient times have no obligation to research the contributions science has made to police work. The Romans knew nothing of the forensic medicine we have today. The gruesome way to identify a toxic substance was to buy a slave and test the poison on him. The reason for blood clots was unknown, there was no estimating the time of death, and prints were just the marks on the tips of one’s fingers. Gordianus must rely on his shrewdness, his experience and his knowledge of human nature.

After witnessing a great deal of sexual activity, banquets and parties, dreadful cruelty, sadism (if that word is not an anachronism) and red herrings, the Finder solves the murder and gives himself a shock. Saylor’s scholarship is breathtaking and his writing enthrals. With delightful impudence he suggests that Gordianus’s soldier son Meto helped Caesar write his Gallic War. Instead of indulging in the tiresome habit of thanking those friends and editors who inspired him, he appends a bibliography of learned works. It is hard to put his books down, yet at the same time there is a feeling that here is a translation of some recently discovered and long-hidden piece of classical literature. If only it were! Classics would come back on to the school curriculum and Latin be students’ favourite subject.

Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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