Wednesday, November 3, 2010
From the shelves of the Paco library
In the comments section of my last book review, Rebecca mentioned Steven Saylor. By coincidence, I was, at the time, reading Saylor’s collection of short stories, The House of the Vestals, which makes an excellent topic for today’s “Shelves” feature.
Vestals features Saylor’s much admired ancient Roman detective, Gordianus the Finder, and serves to fill in the chronological gap between the author’s first Gordianus novel, Roman Blood and the second, Arms of Nemesis. In these stories, we learn how Gordianus acquired his bodyguard, Belbo, and we see the origins of his friendship with the goodhearted patrician senator, Lucius Claudius. We are also treated to more background material on Eco, the mute street urchin whom Gordianus has taken in as a son, and his beautiful Jewish-Egyptian concubine, Bethesda (a slave who is far more like a wife than a servant).
The stories themselves are elegant puzzles, sometimes inspired by actual events; however, although I enjoy a good mystery, it is almost always the author’s skill in characterization and dialogue, plus the “special touches”, that attract me to any kind of genre fiction, and Saylor does not disappoint. His depiction of Cicero as an intelligent, but vain and priggish, advocate is not only amusing, but probably very true to life. Saylor’s development of Eco is fascinating, as we watch the boy cleverly overcome his inability to speak by developing his own language, consisting of gesticulations and facial expressions. And what a pleasure it is to come upon Lucius, the bored senator who finds meaning in life through the pursuit of justice, and in the excitement of assisting Gordianus in several of his inquiries. Another aspect of the stories that makes them so thoroughly enjoyable is the author’s wide-ranging historical knowledge of the period (the final years of the Roman Republic). The inclusion of many small details, with respect to everything from architecture to religious ceremonies to clothing, provides a realistic context for the action.
I am simultaneously embarrassed, and thrilled, to admit that I have not read but one of the novels in what Saylor calls his Roma Sub Rosa series. Embarrassed because Saylor’s is a body of work that I feel I should have delved into a long time ago; thrilled because I have so much good reading ahead of me. If Vestals is indicative of the overall quality, then I’m genuinely in for a treat, because this is one of those books that I was saddened to come to the end of. I don’t think I can give a better recommendation than that.