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by Albert A. Bell Jr
High Country Publishers Ltd, October 2002
246 pages
ISBN: 097130453X

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In April of A. D., 83, Gaius Pliny (Pliny the Younger), and his traveling companion, Cornelius Tacitus are traveling in a caravan on their return to Rome. While stopping for a short rest as they approach Smyrna, Pliny intercedes for a young slave girl who has displeased her master. Cornutus, her master, is a surly sort and an argument soon develops which draws in many of the others who are traveling with them. Upon their arrival in Smyrna, most of the members of the caravan spend the night at the same inn, only to discover that Cornutus has been murdered in the night.

Pliny, with the reluctant assistance of Tacitus, takes charge in the absence of the governor of the province. Until the governor's arrival, Pliny is determined that no one shall leave Smyrna. He also begins to investigate the murder and to question the guests and staff at the inn. The travelers are a varied lot, ranging from young Roman nobles such as Pliny and Tacitus to a gaggle of witches, to the physician, Luke, the author of one of the Four Gospels. Pliny has no idea of what Christians believe, other than a few misconceptions. After Luke has helped him considerably, and he then learns that Luke is a Christian, Pliny is surprised to discover that others of the group around him are also Christians.

Roman "justice" called for the slaves of any murdered Roman to be tortured and questioned. Pliny tries to dissuade the governor from taking this approach. The Romans had an uneasy relationship with slavery. They couldn't live without their slaves, but they were outnumbered by them and feared uprisings. Thus, they controlled them with discipline, harsh in many cases. Some of the wealthy Christians in the novel also were slave owners, however, they felt that they treated them better than the average Roman treated his slaves.

I figured out the culprit(s) fairly early in the book. However, that didn't affect my enjoyment of the story, especially the historical aspects. The author has lengthy credentials as an historian of the era and it shows. The descriptions of the people and their habits and attitudes was fascinating. In the Author's Notes, Mr. Bell describes his years of study of Pliny's letters and his knowledge of Roman history. The author has attempted to put the attributes that he has ascertained from Pliny's letters into his character in the novel. This is the first book in a planned series featuring Pliny and Tacitus and will be a welcome and intelligent addition to the genre of historical mystery fiction.

Reviewed by Lorraine Gelly, August 2002

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