In an era when brute power and irrational passion hold sway over reason and justice, a man of curiously modern sensibility conducts a murder inquiry and, through his shrewd and doughty efforts, closes the gap between our time and his. That was the formula that helped make the medieval thriller The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, both a literary sensation and a popular one. It’s also the template for this historical thriller set in Late Republican Rome. But whereas Eco modeled his hero William of Baskerville on Sherlock Holmes, Saylor draws inspiration for the creation of his protagonist from Raymond Chandler. Gordianus the Finder wears the figurative mantle of Philip Marlowe only a trifle more loosely than he does his tunic, and his ethos clearly has a Marlovian cast to it: Down the mean “ways” of Rome—the Appian Way, the Via Flaminia, the Latin Road—a citizen must go who is not himself mean. From high on the Palatine, home both to ancient noble families and to power brokers of recent and dubious vintage, down to the squalid backstreets of the Subura, Gordianius travels far and wide on behalf of his client, a young lawyer named Cicero. He also narrates this first of his adventures, in a style that balances classical poise with wry modernity.
Cicero, now just beginning his illustrious public career, has signed on to defend Sextus Roscius filius, who will soon go on trial for the unspeakable crime of parricide. Months earlier, while strolling to a favorite brothel, Sextus Roscius pater had fallen victim to a trio of knife-wielding assassins. Gordianus, charged with finding out whether it was the son who hired them, explores the clash of Roscii against Roscii, as well as the vicissitudes of city life and country life, slavery and freedom, prostitution and paternity. All investigative roads, he finds, lead to an answer that pleases his patron very much. Yet the denouement of this saga, based on an actual case that Cicero recounted in his memoirs, involves a further layer of secret guilt and political intrigue. A slight letdown occurs, in an otherwise riveting work, when Gordianus ceases to be an agent of discovery and becomes a mute witness to the novel’s final set of revelations.