"Gods! Well, you know that’s the way the empire works – selling off unwanted kids to clear a debt is standard practice among the poorer classes throughout the empire, but when it’s your own major-domo that you’ve known for years who’s telling you that, and in Bathyllus’s matter of fact tones, it stops you in your tracks. Sure, I knew that old Grandpa Marcus had bought him fifty-odd years back in Pergamum and taken him to Rome but that was as far as it went.
“What about your mother? I said.
“She was dead, sir. In childbirth, two years previously."
“Ah.” There wasn’t much more I could say, really."
As I’ve mentioned before, I am doing some catch-up reviews for David Wishart’s Corvinus books because I discovered some fans weren’t getting to hear about the latest ones since he left his publisher. In this, one of his best recent ones, Bathyllus, as you can see, takes centre stage when his past catches up with him in the shape of Damon, a long-lost brother. The two have led very different lives and it shows; Damon, though physically very like his brother, has had a harder and more uncertain time and survived it by becoming somewhat of a chancer. He is currently in dire danger because his equally chancy master has been murdered for a valuable item, which his killers did not find on him and which they now assume is in Damon’s hands. Corvinus’s best chance of helping Bathyllus keep him alive is to find the murderers.
We shall meet some old friends in this one, like inveterate gossip Caelius Crispus, Corvinus’s pal Gaius Secundus (complete with a brand-new wife) and cartel boss Eutacticus, if you can call someone a friend who keeps moray eels rather than goldfish and intimates that he might not be averse to feeding you to them. Also some new faces, notably Pomponia Graecina, whom Corvinus approaches for advice when the case starts to turn political, and who gives him a bit of a surprise:
"She was in the garden, standing chatting to a smallish, thin-branched tree with narrow leaves and sprays of pinkish-white flowers.
Right. Chatting. To a tree.
She turned towards me […] I noticed she was wearing as many amulets draped around her neck as would equip a stall outside one of the more popular temples."
Pomponia, as it happens, may be a sucker for New Age superstitions but she has a keen mathematical brain. She was a real person, who would later be one of Rome’s first reputed Christians.
As well as being amusing, this one is intermittently rather moving, as our long-term friend Bathyllus’s back-story becomes clearer. The personal and the political also become interestingly mixed up. The case gets satisfyingly murky before Corvinus manages to get to the bottom of things and find some sort of resolution. Oh, and along the way he also has to do a small job for his mother, who fears her ancient husband, Corvinus’s stepfather Priscus, may be having an affair….