In each tale of this collection, a moment arrives when every element in play—every character, every clue, every quirk and curiosity of life in ancient Rome—snaps into its right relation to every other element. The effect, sudden and viscerally immediate, calls to mind the snap of a Roman master’s whip as it lashes out to strike an errant slave. A great gap, in spirit as well as in time, separates us from the world of antiquity. It separates us, not least, from the casual brutality of a realm in which slavery was more common than free citizenship. Yet Saylor, in these nine “investigations” of Gordianus the Finder, shows that a finely honed story has the power to make a distant world seem vividly near.
Gordianus, a citizen of Rome during the final decades of the Republic, earns his bread by shrewdly navigating the circus of crime and deceit that flourishes just beneath the surface of city life: The scion of a noble family, entangled in a kidnapping scheme that recalls the exploits of a young Julius Caesar, tests the patience of Gordianus, as well as his bravery and cunning. A death by bee-sting, unfolding almost literally in the shadow of the god Priapus, disturbs a vacation in the Etruscan countryside. Finally, in the title adventure, Gordianus enters the forbidden sanctum of the Vestal Virgins in order to solve a murder mystery with dire implications for Rome’s civic and religious peace. Saylor writes with ingenious wit and with a keen (indeed, classical) flair for turning a well-balanced phrase. Although his mode of storytelling betrays a modern sensibility—one that thrives on comic warmth rather than tragic austerity—his prose crackles with all of the sharpness of that slave-owner’s whip.