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by Jane Finnis
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2005
326 pages
ISBN: 1590581938

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

With its setting of December 95 AD, A BITTER CHILL sounds exotic. Three siblings, Roman citizens all of them, own and run a mansio (an inn on a main road that provided for official travelers) near Eboracum (what will become modern day York).

The protagonist, Aurelia Marcella, who is in charge of the mansion, would like nothing more than a quiet Saturnalia. However, between her brother trying to deal with a delicate situation related to his service for the governor and the arrival of a demanding party of guests, that seems unlikely to happen.

Their high-ranking guests are on a mission -- one of the family's sons is about to make what they consider to be an imprudent marriage. Before much can be resolved, one of their slaves is murdered in his sleep. Very quickly suspicion falls on Aurelia's sister. As is usually the case in this genre, the protagonist is forced to solve the mystery in order to clear her name.

For all of its fairly well-researched trappings, A BITTER CHILL is not all that different from any other mystery out there. Change the names, turn the mansio into a bed and breakfast, update some of the historical situations and references and one has a fairly standard mystery set during Christmas.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Human motivations have not changed that much in the succeeding centuries. Elements of Christmas as it is celebrated today certainly do date back to ancient times. The basic elements of a good mystery novel are timeless. All of that said, A BITTER CHILL lacks a certain something. It would have been nice to see less of the modern parallels and more of an attempt at an ancient Roman mindset.

More problematic for me were the sub-plots. The answers to some of the small mysteries were either so predictable to be transparent or so obscure as to be annoying. The overall plot is fairly strong as are some of the characters. Although there is room for improvement, the premise of the series is a good one. A BITTER CHILL will especially appeal to those who enjoy historical mysteries.

Reviewed by Michelle L. Zafron, July 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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