I'm a sucker for books set in ancient Rome, and in particular, mysteries. So I've been anticipating Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, because it promises to deliver exactly what I like: the delicious, twisted knot of a murder set as microcosm against the larger intrigue of the corrupt Roman empire. R.S. Downie doesn't disappoint.
Ruso is an officer in the Twentieth Legion, which is stationed in Roman Britain--in other words, the middle of nowhere. He's a doctor who has inherited massive debt from his father, and as a result, has taken the army job for the steady pay. Money is a serious problem for Ruso and figures largely in this story: for some reason, despite all attempts to be responsible, money seems to elude his grasp at every turn.
Ruso is not what one might expect from a detective. Indeed, he would be first in line to disagree with that label: a running joke throughout the book develops as various characters begin asking Ruso if he is the doctor from the hospital who is investigating the strange deaths. He tiredly replies in the negative--even though, in practice, this is actually what he's doing. Yet neither Ruso nor his legion want to see it that way: as far as the official line is concerned, poor Saufeia's death remains a mystery. But Ruso just can't resist tugging at that one thread; much to his dismay, as he tugs, the entire tapestry of deceit and subterfuge begins to unravel throughout Deva.
Thus, Medicus is not a straight-up murder mystery so much as a thriller grounded in controlled chaos. Downie creates a believable, lively town in Roman Britain populated by a diverse mix of characters. As she admits in her author's note, archaeology is only now beginning to fill in the considerable gaps regarding life in Roman Britain left by the--exclusively Roman--chroniclers of the time. So it's hard to say that Downie is accurate in her portrayal of Deva ... but she certainly strives to create a plausible and consistent setting. Although, as with any murder mystery, the subject matter and scenes often take on quite a serious tone, the majority of the book exists in a state of Pythonesque humour. Nowhere is this humour better demonstrated than in Ruso's relationships with Valens and Priscus.
In the first case, Ruso and Valens are both doctors under an absent Chief Medical Officer whom everyone assumes is on the way out. Thus, they become de facto rivals to be his replacement. Ruso is not spectacularly ambitious, but he decides that being CMO would solve a lot of his pressing problems, including debt and the lack of suitable accommodations. Valens is an unscrupulous but collegial officer who plays the game on a level entirely distinct from Ruso. He's got his eyes on the Second Spear's daughter (nought but misfortune comes from that!) and maintains an upbeat friendship with Ruso even as he maneouvres for the CMO spot.
In the second case, Priscus feels like he could be a bureaucrat from a Monty Python sketch. He is officious and self-absorbed. He's the administrator of the hospital--just the hospital!--but he maintains an iron grip on every aspect of its operations. He and Ruso butt heads quite a bit, mostly because Ruso lackadaisically refuses to cooperate blindly with Priscus' management. I love this use of Priscus as a foil to Ruso: it highlights how many of his flaws are also some of his best, most human qualities. His compassion for a soldier suffering cataracts leads him to recommend a costly treatment option, over Priscus' grumbling about auditors and expenses. And of course, it's this same compassion that makes him purchase the abused slave girl whom he inadvertently names Tilla.
I've spent a lot of time singing the praises of Ruso, but I would be remiss if I didn't talk about Tilla. The front of this edition proclaims Medicus as, "The first Ruso and Tilla investigation." So I kind of had an inkling that she would be sticking around. Yet Downie doesn't make that a sure thing within the story at all. Tilla is a mess of interesting contradictions, truly different from the kind of scheming Roman women Ruso is accustomed to. It takes him a long time to start communicating with her at any meaningful level--and even then, she still keeps things back, doesn't trust him. I love watching their relationship develop and weather these setbacks. I'm really intrigued to see how that continues in later novels in the series.
Tilla offers a contrasting perspective on the events happening around her and Ruso. Though she understands Ruso is trying to help her, she doesn't understand that he has started to have qualms about selling her. As far as she's concerned, he views her as just another investment. She is suspicious of the Roman soldiers occupying this land, especially because she comes from a tribe that has long resisted Roman conquest. In attempting to understand and "win over" Tilla, Ruso discovers he instead must adapt and look at things from the Britannic point of view. He's new to this country, hasn't yet decided what kind of Roman soldier in Britain he'll be. This is his proving ground.
The actual murder that starts everything takes a backseat to more intricate plots around the administration of the hospital, the promotion to CMO, and the titular dancing girls at a pub in the town. Ruso might not be the doctor investigating the disappearance of the dancing girl ... but he's definitely nosing around in places that draw the attention of less savoury characters. He isn't a detective so much as a dog with a bone. But he's no bumbler either, and while he miscalculates, he also proves clever, cunning, and every so often, courageous.
Medicus is the promising opening to a series that offers a lot of things I enjoy: mystery, mayhem, ancient Rome, and fun main characters. If that sounds good to you, then check it out.