Mini Review of David Wishart
David Wishart’s mystery series is about a Senatorial class (although not actually a Senator) amateur sleuth called Marcus Corvinus (full name Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus) who loves wining and dining – especially the wining! The novels are set in first century AD Rome, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius and feature some interesting twists on such events as the Teutoburg Massacre (Varus and his three legions), the death of Germanicus and the fall of Sejanus. The plot twists are of particular interest to those who have read Robert Graves’ novels (I, Claudius and Claudius the God), but good reads nethertheless for those who haven’t.
Marcus Corvinus’ first job as amateur detective is in the novel Ovid, where he is asked by Ovid’s stepdaughter, Perilla Rufia, to arrange for the poet’s ashes to be brought back from his place of exile. As Corvinus’ grandfather was Ovid’s Patron, he feels obliged to help (the fact that Perilla is a beautiful woman too, may have something to do with it!). Bringing back an exiles ashes is not as easy to arrange as Corvinus first thought when permission from the Emperor was denied with no explanation and not even a meeting. When nobody will tell Corvinus why Ovid was exiled by Augustus, and why is was so important that even Augustus’ successor Tiberius won’t allow the dead man’s ashes to return, Corvinus decides there is much more to this than meets the eye. Conspiracies, plots and revolts are plentiful and you never really know who is involved in what until the end of the novel. There is a sub-plot running throughout which is supposed to be the voice of Quinctilius Varus, the general who led his three legions into the German Teutoburg forest where they were massacred in AD 9, resulting in the loss of the northern Rhine for Rome. It is only near the end that the Ovid plot and the Varus plot come together for a dangerous revelation. For a first mystery, I found this novel quite gripping and I couldn’t wait to find out how everything tied together.
In Germanicus, Marcus Corvinus is commissioned by the aging Empress Livia (the late Augustus’ wife, and Tiberius’ mother) to investigate the death of wonder-boy Germanicus. That’s right, Livia, this marks Wishart’s departure from the events as told by Graves. Here, Livia swears on an alter that she did not directly or indirectly murder Germanicus. Corvinus’ brief is simple, if Livia is not responsible, then he has to find out who was responsible for Germanicus’ death. As he delves deep into the murky waters of Roman, and in particular Imperial, politics, Corvinus begins to wonder if he can trust Livia’s declaration on the alter. Again, nobody is prepared to talk and certain parties would prefer it if Corvinus was “out of the way”. With Tiberius implicated and possibly his son Drusus (now heir to the Imperial purple with Germanicus dead), the investigation suddenly becomes dangerous. Reaching a dead end in Rome, Corvinus decides to try Antioch, where the death occurred. Again he is confronted by a stone-wall, not to mention the added problem of meeting his new wife’s thoroughly unpleasant and disgruntled ex-husband. Eventually, evidence emerges that perhaps Germanicus was not such the “golden boy” and that Tiberius would have had to deal with him. The inconsistency being that poison (that was in no doubt!) was not Tiberius’ style. Then the revelation comes, supposing it was not Tiberius who had Germanicus murdered, but somebody acting in his name, but without his knowledge? Then, how does the Parthian king come into the story, and what about Piso (who committed suicide) and his wife Plancina who were tried in the Senate for the murder and treason. It is a nasty web to untangle, but Corvinus eventually thinks he has it solved – despite being politely asked to leave Antioch after asking too many questions – and presents Livia with his findings.
Ten years have passed since the previous story, and the novel Sejanus starts with a funeral. This means that Corvinus and his wife Perilla have had to return to Rome from their voluntary exile in Athens (the reasons are to do with Corvinus’ dangerous knowledge). We are now in the Rome ruled by Sejanus, the Praetorian Guard Commander and according to Emperor Tiberius,
“partner of my labours”. The Empress Livia is two years dead, but she still has a job for Corvinus detailed in a letter written shortly before she died. Treason trials and accusations of adultery (or worse) are common place and Livia’s orders are for Corvinus to find convincing evidence of Sejanus’ underhand dealings and present them to Tiberius so that he will bring about Sejanus’ demise. So how do you dig the dirt on the most powerful man in Rome, who manages to delude Tiberius and keep the Senate under his thumb? Corvinus has to do just that without Sejanus knowing, otherwise it could mean the end to the investigation and to his life – Livia is no longer there to protect him. However, there is somebody watching him, and even protecting him from an attack, the question is who, and do they really have friendly intentions? As usual, nobody is willing to talk and at the mere mention of Sejanus, they become scared. After being accused of treason himself – a trumped up and blatantly false charge by Sejanus in attempt to halt investigations – Corvinus has to appear to “disappear” from Rome. But disappearing is the last thing on Corvinus’ mind and he goes underground to complete the investigation. The climax comes with a visit in disguise to Tiberius’ villa on the Island of Capreae in an attempt to pass on the evidence against Sejanus – but will it be enough to convince Tiberius? There is a tragic (but ultimately happy) sub-plot involving a girl who needs protection from her father and there are some wonderful slave characters which break the mold where portrayal of such characters is concerned.
The Lydian Baker
The Lydian Baker – Marcus Corvinus’ step-father gives him the task of buying “The Lydian Baker”, an ancient statue (missing for centuries and suddenly rediscovered) dedicated to Delphi by Croseus. However, things don’t go according to plan and against his better judgement, Corvinus ends up investigating the mysterious deaths of people trying to sell the statue. At first this looks like a typical double-cross gone wrong with partners and clients, but the further Corvinus gets into the underworld of Athens, the nastier things become. This time, not only does Corvinus have to contend with tight-lipped witnesses and mysterious people following him, but also with highly-strung academics from the Academy, an Athenian “police chief” who is determined to carryout procedures by the book and a parrot that learned to speak in the slums of Athens’ docks. Why then, does Corvinus enter a high-class brothel (very discreet with prices to match) and get hit over head – and who rescues him later? Furthermore, what has a respected academic and the brothel’s owner got to do with the statue? Who is the mysterious buyer of the statue, who was bidding against Corvinus’ step-father? Why is one of the business partners selling the statue hiding out on the docks? Finally, where is the statue?! These are a few of the mysteries Corvinus has to unravel in the course of this novel. The twists and turns are gripping enough, and it is very refreshing to read a novel entirely set in Athens, instead of Rome.
On the whole, I would say that Wishart is a competent mystery writer, although I think a better term for his novels would be historical enigma writing, because he builds mysteries around real events and enigmas of history. I especially like the way Wishart uses his classical scholarship to extrapolate – very bravely – events and form hypotheses. One must, of course, remember that these are fictional novels and therefore hypotheses about events are just supposition and guesswork, expertly done nevertheless.
On the minus side, Wishart’s use of language and grammar can be frustrating, perplexing, extremely idiosyncratic and at time just plain poor. My guess it that, as the books are written in the first person, he is trying to create a gritty, urban dialogue style for his sleuth. However, considering Corvinus is from the Patrician class (and a “purple striper”), his speech should not be anything like street slang! This is a minor quibble though, and if you can ignore the grammar then the books are worth a read.
Other novels in th Marcus Corvinus series since this article was written include: Old Bones (an Etruscan theme), Last Rites (Rome’s religions) and White Murder (Circus racing). Wishart has also written to non-mystery novels about the lives of Virgil and Emperor Nero, entitled I, Virgil and Nero respectively, as well as a haunting novel about the revolt of Boudicca called The Horse Coin.