10 August, 2010

Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, by Ruth Downie. Book review

Penguin, 2006. ISBN 978-0-141-02725-8. 465 pages.

Also published as Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, and the excessively portentous-sounding Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Sometimes the author’s name appears as Ruth Downie, sometimes as RS Downie.

This historical mystery is set at the Roman Army base of Deva (modern Chester) in Britain in 117 AD. All the characters are fictional.

Gaius Petreius Ruso is a surgeon in the Roman Army medical corps. Recently divorced and with an indebted family in southern Gaul to support, he takes up a posting with the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix in distant Britain in the hope of earning some money. He finds Britannia damp, cheerless and unwelcoming, partly because of the climate and partly because lack of funds means he is sharing a condemned house with a tribe of mice, a litter of boisterous puppies and the untidiest medic in the Army. When the body of a local barmaid turns up strangled in the river, Ruso really does not want to investigate. It isn’t his job, and he has far too many other things to do, what with chasing the mice out of the bread-bin, coping with an interfering administrator and a lovesick hospital porter, and treating an injured slave girl he bought against his better judgement and who is turning out to be disturbingly attractive. But no-one else is trying to solve the mystery, and when a second girl from the same bar also turns up dead Ruso feels he has to get to the bottom of it – especially as it seems someone is now trying to kill him too...

A Roman historical mystery investigated by an army surgeon with a complicated personal life, chaotic living arrangements, a wry sense of humour and a slowly developing realisation that he has fallen in love with a tough young woman from a different cultural background – you could be forgiven for chalking this up as a Lindsey Davis clone with a bit of M*A*S*H thrown in. Especially with a tag on the cover proclaiming “As good as Lindsey Davis or your sestercii back!”. Much as I like Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels (see review of The Silver Pigs, I find this sort of blatant association less than helpful, as it sets up an immediate preconception that risks getting in the way of the story. Is this a Roman-set mystery? Yes. Is it a Falco clone? No.

Although the novel is billed as a mystery, the whodunit plot is only one of many things going on in Ruso’s complicated personal life. He has to manage not only his duties at the military hospital, which are more onerous than usual because he and his friend and colleague Valens are covering for the absent Chief Medical Officer, but also his many other responsibilities. Ruso’s father has recently died leaving his two sons to inherit a spendthrift stepmother, a mountain of not-very-well-concealed debts and a farm in Gaul mortgaged well beyond the hilt and under constant threat of repossession. Ruso’s main preoccupation is finding the money to keep the creditors at bay while he earns enough to pay them off, by means of his salary and any other method he can think of. As a result, much of the story revolves around Ruso’s money worries, compounded by a control freak of a hospital administrator who is obsessed with charging for absolutely everything he can think of and apparently determined to channel all the hospital’s resources into expensive schemes for cutting corners and saving money. (Readers may insert the modern parallel of their choice.) On top of this, Ruso also has to find his feet in his new environment, which provides a convenient way for the reader to learn about everyday life in a Roman legionary fortress and its associated vicus*. And there is the developing relationship between Ruso and Tilla, the injured British slave he bought to rescue from an abusive master. With all this competition for Ruso’s attention – and, perforce, the reader’s – the mystery itself is rather on the slight side, though it’s resolved neatly enough in the end.

The best features of the novel, for me, were the characters and the delightfully wry humour of the writing style. Ruso, the central character, is long-suffering, rather put-upon, professional, honest, decent, serious and likeable. Much of the comedy comes from Ruso’s bemusement as he tries to make sense of his chaotic new environment and the baffling behaviour of those around him. His irresponsible, attractive, self-centred colleague Valens is the opposite, always managing to fall on his feet while deflecting any trouble onto Ruso. The amiable and lazy Regional Control Officer – “Show them we take it very seriously but whatever you do, don’t promise we’ll do anything about it” – will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had dealings with an inefficient bureaucracy. Tilla is an enigmatic character, to the reader (at least to me) as much as to Ruso. Her history and the chain of events that led to her becoming a maltreated slave in Deva is only hinted at, leaving plenty of questions that will no doubt be resolved in later books in the series. She distrusts all Romans on principle and at first is inclined to make use of Ruso as an opportunity to escape back to her home, just as she expects Ruso to make use of her by selling her to clear some of his debts. Their relationship develops slowly over the course of the novel, and still has scope for further development by the end.

Delightful historical mystery set in second-century Roman Britain, told with wit and wry humour.

*A vicus is a civilian settlement outside a military base, a sort of cross between a suburb and a shanty town.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Yeah, that one has a strong Things Haven't Really Changed the Last 2000 Years-vibe. Which I suppose is pretty true when it comes to Roman administration. There's a reason the German tribes didn't like the tax office and the lawyers. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds great, and I love the title! ;-)

Rick said...

Marketing is aggravating, but 'delightfully wry humour' and Gabriele's comment about nothing changing in 2000 years make a comparison to the Falco books inevitable.

Does Ruso's medical background play a role in the investigation? Ancient medical theory might be worthless, but practical experience with trauma and death would be helpful. (Think of a very different detective, Cadfael.)

I seem to recall an earlier review here involving a Roman protagonist having a complex relationship with a slave girl. But that is probably a natural trope, frequently used, combining a lurid tease with a chance to examine the general oddness of human relations.

Carla said...

Gabriele - that's probably part of its appeal.

Kathryn - the title suits the comic aspect of the story - 'dancing girls' sounds much lighter and nicer than some of the alternative words for their profession. Some of the undercurrents beneath the comedy are quite dark, but by and large the book doesn't go into the grisly detail.

Rick - no, hardly at all. Ruso correctly identifies one of the bodies as strangled rather than drowned, which is part of the reason it nags at his conscience since he knows it wasn't an accident, but that's about it. I admit to being mildly disappointed by that, because I'm interested in Roman medicine/surgery and was hoping it would play a bigger role. Most of Ruso's medical practice happens off stage (perhaps because the gory details would be a bit too, well, gory for a lighthearted novel). It will be interesting to see if Ruso's medical background plays more of a part in the later novels.

A beautiful slave girl (Fabiola) has a relationship with Decimus Brutus in The Forgotten Legion series, set in Julius Caesar's Rome, and a freed slave girl is the heroine in Men of Bronze, though that isn't set in Rome - are either of those the one you were thinking of?

Rick said...

I may have been thinking of The Forgotten Legion.

Perhaps the author set up his medical background for future use, but didn't have much call for it in this book.

Carla said...

Rick - quite likely. When I get around to reading the rest of the series I'll be able to tell you :-)

Annis said...

The good news is that Ruso just keeps on getting better. There'a fourth book due out later this year called "Caveat Emptor", and I'm a bit worried because Ruth Downie has commented that she was only contracted to write four novels in total for the series. Here's hoping Ruso has proven popular enough to get a stay of execution!

Gabriele Campbell said...

A 4th already? I have the first two but didn't even know about a third.

Carla said...

Annis - That's good to hear! I will look out for the new book.

Gabriele - I think Book 3 only came out quite recently, some time earlier this year.