Tour’s Books Blog

December 13, 2009

Book Review: SPQR XII: Oracle of the Dead by John Maddox Roberts

  • Title: SPQR XII: Oracle of the Dead
  • Author:John Maddox Roberts
  • Type: Roman Mystery
  • Genre: Decius Caecilius Metellus series; wise cracking sleuth
  • Sub-genre: Roman politics and murder as Cesar rises to power
  • My Grade: C+ to B- (3.5*)
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Length and price:  Full novel, about 90,000 words, for $10.11 on sale, $14.99 cover price
  • Where Available: Anywhere books are sold
  • FTC Disclosure: Purchased from online bookseller

I’m always anxiously awaiting the latest installment in the excellent SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts.  I’ve been a fan since he first started it back in the early ’90’s.  It’s taken all the way to book twelve for me to be disappointed.  In Oracle for the Dead Decius Caecilius Metellus and his wife Julia, Cesar’s niece, are lingering in Campania region where we left them in Under Vesuvius.  Post dinner conversation with the local politicians turns to local temples the Oracle of the Dead that’s nearby.  Julia wants to visit, so off they go.  They come upon a temple of Apollo first as it shares the sacred grounds with the oracle.  Though Apollo is Greek god long established in the region, it is the seen aspect of Apollo as the avenger that is worshiped here.  Behind and beneath Apollo’s temple is the Oracle dedicated to the Greek goddess Hecate, usually associated with ghosts.  First they visit the white robed priests of Apollo and next they go with the black robed priestess of Hecate.  After drinking wine likely spiked with herbs, the party begins the decent into a cave supposedly on the banks of the river Styx.  Wading into the water as directed by the high priestess, Decius asks about Cesar and the Senate.  Insistent, he steps further and something grabs is ankles.  It’s the body of Eugaeon, the high priest of Apollo.

Decius is a Skeptic and has always had this logical, naturally curious turn of mind.  As praetor peregrinus, an elected office that gives him Imperial powers and makes him responsible for sitting as judge in cases involving foreigners throughout the empire, he finds himself somewhat at odds with his own nature.  He’s really a born investigator.  Endlessly curious, less given to the superstitions of the time – though certainly not free of them – he is still happiest when given the task of unraveling a web of deceit and subterfuge.  Heaven knows the empire has more than its fair share of both.  Times are unsettled with Cesar and the Senate at odds and Pompey preparing to march against Cesar should he dare to cross the Rubicon.  Decius knows both men well and his being married to Cesar’s niece does not make him a supporter, but holding one of the highest offices of the Imperium means staying neutral in the upcoming fight might be difficult.  Having served under Cesar during his military years, Decius has not the slightest doubt the man will win and do so quickly.  Unlike his his wife Julia, he doubts Cesar’s control of the Imperium will be a good thing for Rome.  These final days before Cesar makes his last strategic moves to power finds Decius in the heart of Pompey’s lands as the proconsul raises his old legionaries to fight Cesar’s inevitable invasion.

As the investigation of the death of the high priest is started, all the other priests of Apollo have disappeared.  They are eventually found dead in a crypt below the temple that could only be accessed by a hidden mechanism.  The next day Decius is awakened because there’s ANOTHER murder – the slave girl who lead them to the secret entrance of the crypt.  Unlike the priests, she has an obvious cause of death, she was stabbed.  She was also pregnant.  The most obvious suspects are the followers of Hecate.  The High Priestess Iola and Eugaeon had a powerful rivalry, not uncommon as temples vie for financial support.   His investigation takes him to Stabiae along with his traveling court to hear cases involving foreigners awaiting his judgment.  Tired of the trappings of office, he decides to wander the town alone and gets stopped by a woman named Floria, a freed slave, who tells him the tale of her former master, a businessman who was killed in his travels after the oracle told him to take 5 times the usual amount of money with him.  It all keeps going back to the Oracle.  He’s called to Pompeii by the mayor because of the murder of a foreign business man in the city – a man long suspected of illegal activity.  Decius was to hear a case brought against the dead man by his Roman partner, a requirement for all foreigners doing business within the empire is a citizen partner.  The stabbing is a virtual duplicate of what happened to the pregnant temple slave.  The records in the dead man’s office yield plenty of evidence that he was indeed a fence for stolen goods, a major one, and in league with someone in the area.

On the way back to the villa, he’s shot with an arrow, his unknown would-be murderer escaping.  He survives and spends some time recuperating – including returning to regular military sword practice.  Healed, he knows he can’t drag things out much longer, but he determined to learn who the murderer is.  It’s with the help of the local master stone mason, the local historian, the records of the murdered fence, and the former slave who gave him information about the oracle months that Decius finally pieces it all together.  But the deaths aren’t done yet and there’s another attempt on his life that kills one of the local matrons instead – or perhaps she was the target.  Knowing he’s about to seriously overstep the bounds of office, which constrains from acting as a prosecutor, he calls Pompey back to the temple area and summons Cato, a man he dislikes, but who is impeccability honest and a powerful senator, to hear his solution.

It is here, in this last pages that the story falls flat.  The solution to the tangled web of deceit and greed unravels through the records and statements of witnesses, but even though he gets confession, as praetor perigrinus he cannot act as a prosecutor.   The reader is left hanging as to the fate of the guilty and then Maddox throws in disconcerting closing paragraphs about the deaths of Pompey and Cato and even his wife Julia and then the book ends.  This very abrupt cut off was incredibly unsatisfying and disconcerting.  It rather ruined the whole thing and frankly made no sense.  Overall, Decius Caecilius Metellus is not in his best form here.  The sly and cutting humor that peppered the earlier books is notably absent.  Yes, he still makes sharp, observant remarks on people and society in general, but there is a more world weary and missing the usual wry humor that made him such an appealing character.  The plot was more tangled than usual, but the action seemed to creep along at a much slower pace.  The book just lacked the verve I associated with the SPQR series.

Solid, excluding the annoying abrupt ending, SPQR XII: Oracle of the Dead is a better than average read, but not up to the usual standards on the earlier books in the series.  If you’re a fan, by all means buy it and enjoy, but if you haven’t been following them, you’d be better served starting at the beginning of the series with SPQR I: The King’s Gambit.  The earlier books are overall more engaging than this latest entry.  Also, since the stories are told in the first person by Decius Caecilius Metellus and he goes through life, moving through various military and political offices, it helps ground the reader as the character evolves over time.  The SPQRbooks are not available in mass market paperback, just in hardcover or trade paperback, so the books are expensive, but worth the price if you enjoy a wise cracking mystery mixed with the politics of Roman life during a period of  staggering historical consequence.


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