02 August, 2012

Ruso and the River of Darkness, by RS Downie. Book review

Penguin 2011.  ISBN 978-0-141-03694-6. 449 pages. 

Also published as Caveat Emptor, and the author’s name sometimes appears as Ruth Downie.

Fourth in the Ruso series of historical mysteries, Ruso and the River of Darkness is set in Roman Britain in Londinium (modern London) and Verulamium (modern St Albans) in 120 AD.  Emperor Hadrian (he of the eponymous not-yet-built Wall) is an important off-stage presence with the Imperial staff in Londinium anticipating his visit to Britain, but does not appear. All the main characters are fictional.

Roman army surgeon Gaius Petreius Ruso is no longer working for the Roman Army.  Newly married to his British wife Tilla, he has returned to Britain and his friend Valens, now in private practice in Londinium, has promised to find him a job.  Unfortunately, although what Ruso wants is a job as a surgeon, what Valens delivers is a job investigating the mysterious disappearance of Verulamium’s tax money and its tax-collector, Julius Asper.  To complicate matters further, Tilla becomes independently involved with the case when she is called on to act as midwife to the missing man’s lover, Camma of the Iceni and becomes emotionally attached to Camma and her new baby.  When Julius Asper turns up dead, and Rome’s sinister secret police get involved, Ruso’s investigation turns out to be only part of something much darker and more dangerous.

The Ruso series gets better and better.  This is Number Four, following Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, Ruso and the Demented Doctor, and Ruso and the Root of All Evils, all reviewed here previously.  The relationship between Ruso and Tilla continues to be one of the series’ best features, as two intelligent and likeable people with strong characters and very different cultural backgrounds try to find a way to share their life together.  In Ruso and the River of Darkness, they have progressed as far as marriage and are hoping to find somewhere to settle down, make a home together and start a family.  But there are still many obstacles in their path, with a potential personal tragedy as well as the cultural divide coming between them.

In Ruso and the Root of All Evils, it was Ruso’s chaotic family who provided the comedy.  In Ruso and the River of Darkness, Ruso’s family are far away in Gaul, and the chaotic family honour goes to Valens, whose self-centred charm may have been successful in winning him a wife but is proving less successful in keeping her.  Ruso’s ex-clerk Albanus, now making a precarious living as a teacher, makes a welcome reappearance here, and unless I’m much mistaken there’s even a hint of personal happiness in the offing for him (I hope so).

The mystery seems more substantial in Ruso and the River of Darkness than in its three predecessors, where the mystery has often seemed to me to be more of a background to Ruso’s complicated personal life.  This instalment is darker and more complex than the previous Ruso mysteries.  There is a lot going on – fraud, rivalries in local politics, counterfeiting, and hints of inter-tribal politics, as well as the murder.  The memory of Boudica’s revolt, sixty years earlier, still casts a long shadow over Verulamium and its inhabitants.  The captain of Verulamium’s town guard and the town magistrates are still responding to the legacy of the revolt, in very different ways.  It is a contributory factor in poisoning the marriage of Camma (a direct descendant of Boudica) to a Verulamium magistrate whose elderly mother is still traumatised by the events she witnessed as a child.  Motivations are complex, with at least one interestingly ambiguous character doing bad things at least in part for good, even noble, reasons.

Although the atmosphere is darker, the humour that is such an attractive feature of the Ruso mysteries persists.  Valens’ family life, Ruso’s domestic arrangements (including a perennial puzzle over what to do with a huge crate of wedding crockery), and the more shambolic aspects of Roman administration provide an unfailing source of comedy.  The writing is as witty as ever.

A map at the front is helpful for readers unfamiliar with the geography of Roman Britain, and the characteristically wry cast list at the front may be useful if any readers need help keeping the characters straight (and is amusing to read even if you don’t).  An Author’s Note at the back mentions some of the historical and archaeological background to the novel.

Witty, humorous historical mystery set in second-century Roman Britain.


Rick said...

I'm thinking I should really give this series a spin!

Perhaps the requirements of an ongoing mystery series are gradually forcing the author to concentrate more on the mystery as such.

Carla said...

I'd certainly recommend it. I like the Ruso series very much. If you read them, I'll be interested in your thoughts.

Annis said...

Great review, Carla. I loved this one and reviewed it here, though you'll see I've given it its alternative title "Caveat Emptor". I've enjoyed all the books in this series, but this one was particularly appealing because the greater development of the relationship between Ruso and Tilla adds a further dimension to the series. The pairing is inspired, because the reader gets to see events from both a Roman and Celtic point of view, and they are such an engaging couple :)

Carla said...

Annis - thanks! Yes, the Ruso-Tilla relationship is one of the things I like best about the series.