29 May, 2011

Ruso and the Root of All Evils, by RS Downie. Book review

Penguin 2010, ISBN 978-0-141-03692-2. 435 pages. Also published as Persona Non Grata, and the author’s name sometimes appears as Ruth Downie. Try not to get confused.

Third in the Ruso series of historical mysteries, Ruso and the Root of All Evils is set in the south of Roman Gaul (the area around modern Nimes) in the early second century AD. All the main characters are fictional.

When Gaius Petrieus Ruso, a surgeon serving with the Roman Army in Britain, receives an urgent summons home from his brother in southern Gaul, he guesses that the family’s long-standing debt problems have hit a new crisis. On arrival, things turn out to be even worse than he thought. The letter was a forgery, and Ruso’s absence on active service was the only thing stopping Severus, the principal creditor (who, in a further complication, is married to Ruso’s ex-wife), from taking out a seizure order on the family home. Now that Ruso is back, the repellent Severus can go ahead and ruin the family – until he is mysteriously poisoned in Ruso’s study. Not only is Ruso now the chief suspect, as he tries to find the real culprit he discovers that the poisoning is only part of a murky web of fraud, deliberate shipwreck and murder – and Ruso may be its next victim.

Ruso and the Root of All Evils is very much in the same vein as its two predecessors, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls and Ruso and the Demented Doctor, an enjoyable lighthearted mystery told with humour and wit. As with the previous two, the mystery is fairly slight and is constantly upstaged by Ruso’s complicated personal life. Ruso’s chaotic family have been a major off-stage presence in his life while he was stationed in Britannia in the first two books, and in this third instalment the reader gets to meet them at first-hand. Arria, Ruso’s spendthrift stepmother, doesn’t grasp – or has chosen not to grasp – that there never was any money for retail therapy and home makeovers, and is still trying to persuade Ruso that the house absolutely must have a new outdoor dining room. Marcia and Flora, Ruso’s two younger half-sisters, are scatty teenagers with a penchant for hanging round gladiators. Lucius, Ruso’s younger brother, is trying desperately to keep the farm afloat on a sea of debt, and his kind wife Cassiana is grieving for her brother Justinus (lost at sea a few months earlier in suspicious circumstances) and just about keeping up with her ever-expanding brood of children. They have no idea what to make of Ruso’s girlfriend Tilla, the beautiful British girl he rescued from slavery (see Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls), which is entirely Ruso’s own fault since he didn’t bother to tell his family anything about Tilla’s existence.

On top of this, Ruso’s elegant ex-wife Claudia is now the widow of the repulsive Severus, and as well as being another suspect she is wondering whether trying to get Ruso back might be a better bet after all – except that Ruso’s stepmother is attempting to get him to marry the rich and attractive businesswoman next door. It’s all reminiscent of a PG Wodehouse farce, except that the crime is murder and if Ruso doesn’t solve it his absurd, helpless, harmless family will all find themselves destitute and Ruso himself may end up being executed for murder. The seriousness of the situation makes a sharp, and at times jarring, contrast with the family comedy.

Tilla is even more of an enigma in this third novel than in the previous two, especially as she is out of place in this strange foreign culture and Arria keeps trying to treat her as a servant. She develops an interest in a strange new religion called Christianity – her first Christian prayer is priceless, not to be missed – much to Ruso’s alarm as he disapproves of Christians. Not surprisingly, her relationship with Ruso comes under strain (in fact, the more I see of Ruso, who can be astonishingly obtuse for an intelligent and decent man, the less surprised I am that his previous marriage ended in an exasperated divorce). The relationship between Tilla and Ruso reaches a significant milestone in this book, and it will be interesting to see how that works out in Book 4.

The mystery, or rather two linked mysteries, is intriguing. One is the poisoning of Severus, investigated by Ruso, the other is the death of Cassiana’s brother Justinus in a rigged shipwreck, investigated by Tilla. At first appearing completely separate, the two sub-plots jog along independently for most of the book, and then converge in a dizzying rush of events in the last few chapters. The resolution happens so suddenly that I got lost and had to re-read a couple of chapters, and I’m still not entirely sure I understand the villain’s motive. Not that this matters, because the mystery is secondary to the charm of the book, which comes from the humour, the characterisation, and Ruso’s attempts to make sense of an illogical world.

Entertaining blend of historical mystery and lighthearted comedy, set in early second-century Roman Gaul.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, Ruso's family sounds like sitcom material right there.

Carla said...

Yes, the humour in the Ruso books is one of the things I like best about them.

Rick said...

Interesting how the mystery element in this series seems quite secondary to the humorous slice-of-life element.