19 November, 2010

Ruso and the Demented Doctor, by RS Downie. Book review

Penguin, 2009. ISBN 978-0-141-02726-5. 462 pages

Also published under the title Terra Incognita. Sometimes the author’s name appears as Ruth Downie, sometimes as RS Downie.

Second in the Medicus Ruso Roman historical mystery series, Ruso and the Demented Doctor is set in AD 118 in and around Coria (modern Corbridge) in the north of the Roman province of Britannia. All the main characters are fictional.

Gaius Petreius Ruso, Medicus (army surgeon) with the Roman Twentieth Legion in Deva (modern Chester), has volunteered to accompany a detachment on a mission to the northern border*, partly as a way of taking his housekeeper and girlfriend Tilla home to visit her remaining family and friends. Before they even arrive, Ruso learns there is trouble among the local population, not least from a man with antlers on his head – the Stag Man – who claims to be a messenger from the gods. Things get even worse after arriving in Coria, where Ruso is pitched unwillingly into a politically sensitive murder investigation. A soldier has been gruesomely killed in a back alley, and the fort doctor has apparently gone insane and confessed to the murder. Ruso is ordered to get the doctor to retract his confession, so the Prefect’s aide can arrest the preferred suspect, a local rebel sympathiser. On top of this, Ruso is also supposed to sort out the hopelessly inefficient – and, as he gradually discovers, possibly corrupt – fort medical service. And just to make his life even more complicated, his lovely girlfriend Tilla is even more troublesome than usual now she is home, especially when it turns out that the Romans’ preferred suspect for the murder is her childhood friend and former lover….

Ruso and the Demented Doctor lives up to the high standards of its predecessor, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (reviewed here in August 2010). The dry humour that was such an appealing feature of the first novel is back, as Ruso the eternal straight man gamely tries to navigate the bewildering native customs, Tilla’s self-willed independence of thought and action, the antics of the infirmary staff and the devious machinations of security officer Metellus. Ruso himself is as decent and likeable as ever, although he can be so obtuse in emotional matters that I can’t help thinking his ex-wife may have had a point when she told him he was impossible to live with. The beautiful and enigmatic Tilla comes more to the fore here on her home ground, torn between her affection for Ruso and her suspicion of Rome. More is revealed about the sad fate of her family and the events that led to Ruso buying her at death’s door from an abusive slave dealer in far-off Deva.

Minor characters are as individual as the two leads, whether they are secondary characters from Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls making a reappearance – slimy Claudius Innocens, cheerfully egotistical Valens – or new actors in the new story. Of the latter, I found Metellus especially convincing as the Prefect’s aide, a sort of head of the security police, polite, amoral and chillingly ruthless.

The mystery plot is rather more substantial than in Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, and the solution isn’t obvious in advance (or at least, I didn’t spot it). An especially interesting feature of the novel is the vivid portrayal of a Roman frontier fort and its associated shanty town, full of the soldiers’ relatives and traders on the make. Some of the local British population have decided that the Romans have something to offer and have moved into town, set up businesses servicing the Army, and begun adopting Roman names and Roman ways. Others regard the Romans with suspicion and outright hostility. The different customs and ideas, and the interactions and conflicts between them, make for a thought-provoking picture of culture clash and transition, with no easy answers.

Ruso’s relationship with Tilla, which was just getting started in the first book, develops and deepens further in this one. It’s another feature of the novel that I found especially convincing. Both are likeable and sympathetic characters, both are independent adults with their own history and their own values, sometimes resulting in mutual incomprehension and mistrust that conflicts with their attraction to each other. Their relationship is important to them, but it is not the only thing in their lives, and if it is to work they will need to find some sort of mutually acceptable balance. The quote at the beginning of the paperback, from the poet Martial, says “I can’t live with you – nor without you.” Very apt. I look forward to more of this intriguing relationship in the next instalment.

A useful map at the front of the book places the locations in their geographical context, and a brief Author’s Note at the end sketches some of the underlying history.

Delightful historical mystery told with wry humour and deft characterisation, set against the contrasting cultures of northern Britain and the Roman Army in the second century AD.

*Hadrian’s Wall has yet to be built, so the border at this stage is just a road linking a string of forts.


Kathryn Warner said...

Sounds great, and what an excellent title! Another addition to my Christmas wish-list, along with the first one...;-)

Carla said...

Kathryn - yes, it was an enjoyable read, well up to the standard of the first one

Gabriele Campbell said...

Your blog is not helping with my book addiction. ;)

To make things worse I not only read historical fiction, but Fantasy as well, which pretty much doubles my TBR pile.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I can think of worse things to be addicted to :-)

Anonymous said...

I've read all three of the Ruso novels so far, enjoyed them immensely and concur with your review - an excellent read.

Carla said...

Lycra - I'm only up to two so far, am still looking forward to the third!