Gaius Ruso Mystery #4: Caveat Emptor by Ruth Downie

Read: 22 June, 2011

A pregnant Iceni woman, a descendent of the fearsome Boudica, bursts into Britain’s procurator’s office claiming that her husband has been murdered and did not steal the tax money. Ruso, freshly back from Gaul and in need of work – any work – takes on the job of investigator. What he uncovers exposes the delicate peace between Rome and even the most “civilized” British tribes.

The Ruso series is written in a fairly straightforward and often humorous style. Ruso’s (and occasionally Tilla’s) commentary is injected into the narrative to give the series a sort of deadpan comedic element that is just so very British. But despite its similarity to other series, such as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael, Caveat Emptor lacks much of the innocence. There is a hopelessness to the series, a reminder that justice is not always served and that desired outcomes are not always possible.

Caveat Emptor is similar enough to the rest of the series to satisfy the fan, while different enough to stand on its own merits. Downie has proven that she is not to be a “one hit wonder,” and is more than capable of creating a sustainable series.

The mystery itself is good enough, but the best part of Downie’s work is the characterisations. Main characters, like Ruso and Tilla (and even Valens) are complex and distinctive, likeable despite their many flaws. Side characters are similar enough to archetypes to be recognizable, but they provide a lovely illusion of unexplored depth.

This is another great addition to the series and I look forward to reading the next one!

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #3: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Read: 4 October, 2009

When Gaius Petreius Ruso receives a strange letter from his brother, he has no choice but to return to Gaul. Once there, however, he discovers that he has been tricked and he’s about to find out just how dangerous “civilization” can be.

We’ve seen quite a bit of Roman-occupied Britain, but now we get a glimpse of Ruso in his own environment; and this presents its own whole set of dangers. Once again, Downie is able to stay faithful to everything I love about the series without making it seem like just another replica.

I was a bit concerned when Christianity was introduced to the story, as Tilla spends time with Christian slaves. Books with Christian subplots so often devolve into apologetics either for or against the religion. I was practically holding my breath through the whole novel! But Downie manages to handle it with great finesse, simply including it as she does other historical details, and remains blessedly non-partisan.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #2: Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie

Read: 2 July, 2009

Britannia’s Twentieth Legion is heading north, to the very edges of civilization, and taking Gaius Petreius Ruso and his slave, Tilla, along with it. As in Medicus, he soon finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. Only this time, Tilla may be connected.

Terra Incognita is a wonderful sequel, capturing much of what made Medicus such a great novel while simultaneously finding its own unique value. As with the first book in the series, the murder comes almost secondary to the comedy and drama of the characters as Ruso and Tilla explore their growing relationship.

One of my favourite things about this series is how well Downie is able to balance making the characters true to life and yet also ridiculous. It’s that subtle, deadpan British humour – and Ruso certainly does come off as the proto-typical old school Brit!

Funny, interesting, and  suspenseful, all at the same time!

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #1: Medicus by Ruth Downie

Read: 15 June, 2009

Ruso has just bought a slave. He didn’t mean to, of course, but her master was treating her so roughly and she looked half-dead. Her arm is shattered and he doubts that she will live much longer, but still he bought her. Meanwhile, a woman’s body has been found and ,whether he likes it or not, Ruso must solve the mystery of her murder.

It is difficult to call Medicus a detective novel because Ruso really doesn’t do any investigating. Mostly, he just fumbles around in the dark, hopelessly inept in every area other than medicine, until the culprit is so unnerved by Ruso’s questions that he reveals himself. Those clues that Ruso does take credit for tend to be uncovered by his slave, Tilla, or openly confided to him. This bumbling detective style makes Medicus a delightfully whimsical and ironically funny story. It’s a novel only a Brit could have written.

I’m really not sure what attracts me so much to Medicus, but something certainly does. I couldn’t put it down and I ordered the next book in the series within minutes of finishing the last page. I loved that while the setting was so exotic, the issues dealt with in the novel are completely relevant today.

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