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by David Wishart
Hodder & Stoughton, February 2008
304 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 0340840382

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When Corvinus is summoned from Rome to Castimoenium to investigate the suspicious death of lawyer Lucius Hostilius, a number of problems confront him. In the first place, poisoning is suspected, and suspicion often falls on doctors in poisoning cases. Hostilius' doctor, Hyperion, is the father of Clarus who is the beloved and intended of Marilla, Corvinus's adopted daughter; Secondly if an official investigation is launched, then the first step will be to torture all the slaves from Hostilius's household. Luckily with the assistance of the formidable Marcia, Corvinus' courtesy aunt, the local magistrate is persuaded to let Corvinus launch a private investigation. He soon finds himself knee-deep in suspects and motives. Hostilius had turned into an irascible, volatile and rabidly suspicious man in the last year of his life. Suspects include his wife Venturina, his brother-in-law and his business partner. Corvinus has to pursue a lot of leads before reaching the truth, and also deal with the thorny question of what his cook is doing wearing perfume and gallivanting off to town.

Sometimes reading a book which is part of a long-running series (ILLEGALLY DEAD is the twelfth in the Corvinus series) feels a bit like being at a party where everyone else knows each other; this is one such case. Wishart helpfully provides a cast list at the beginning but even so the stories concerning the personal lives of various members of the Corvinus household will be richer and much more interesting to those who are series aficionados. It is not even made clear, for instance, exactly why Corvinus is detecting at all - for money, interest, kicks? The book will certainly mean more to fans of the series.

The Corvinus series is clearly what might be termed Rome-lite. This is not to say that Wishart does not know his stuff but any display of erudition, let alone deeper historical musing, is kept to pretty much of a minimum. What detail does appear - something on Roman cooking for instance (there is an Afterword on this subject) - is concerned with daily life rather than larger historical issues. Those who like their historical mysteries light on history will enjoy this approach, while those who prefer more history might be advised to look at another series. Wishart adopts a deliberately anachronistic style ; Corvinus addresses nearly everyone as 'pal' and metaphors tend to have a modern ring. This can work very well; the highlight was a slave dealer who described his 'goods' in exactly the manner of a modern second-hand car dealer - strangely this brought home the horror of slavery in quite an effective manner. But at other times, and particularly in the character of Corvnius himself, it grew wearisome. Indeed Corvinus himself is something of a problem in that he is not that engaging a hero and suffers in the almost inevitable comparison with Lindsay Davis' Falco.

Having pointed out all the weaknesses, which are considerable, ILLEGALLY DEAD is redeemed by the fact that it is finely paced and has a highly competent mystery at its centre. Certainly not spectacular or breath-taking but well-constructed and well-plotted. The problem is that one never feels very deeply involved with the characters or story. But this is a mystery with a decent mystery plot and one should always give thanks for that. A mystery with a decent mystery plot will, for the mystery reader, never be a bad book even if, because of other weaknesses, I cannot judge it a very good one.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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