Before I start, I want to warn everyone that this review contains MAJOR SPOILERS. All my reviews tend to contain some spoilers, partly because they’re half review, half academic musing, and the musing requires the whole plot to be taken into account, and partly because I always think reviews are more fun when read after you’ve watched/read the thing, like discussing it with a friend. And several of the things I review are mysteries and several of my reviews do reveal what happens at the end, and I confess, generally I assume real spoilerphobes will just stay away until they’ve read it themselves. (Also, when I’m reviewing children’s things, I figure parents might want to read up on the stuff that might or might not upset their kids, and the kids themselves won’t necessarily read the blog). But in this case, I wanted to be extra clear – this will really, really spoil the book for you, not only this book but at least one other of the Gordianus books as well (and an Agatha Christie or two into the bargain). If you’re a real spoilerphobe, you might want to avoid even reading the quotes on the back. These books are really, really good – if you’re remotely interested, go out and read it, then come back and read this when you’re done!
I love Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books. I enjoy Lindsey Davis’ Falco series a lot as well, but something about Saylor’s clinches it for me – the richness of the writing, how real and how Roman the characters feel, and the way he builds his plots up from genuine historical events. I have to confess a very slight preference for some of the earlier novels – Roman Blood, Arms of Nemesis and The Venus Throw – I like the purity of the conceit in these (Gordianus investigates a real Roman murder mystery, mostly based on speeches of Cicero, and of course he discovers a different conclusion to that recorded by history). A Murder on the Appian Way also fits this pattern, but at the same time takes the series in a new direction, first hinted at in Catalina’s Riddle, as Rome descends back into civil war and Gordianus is dragged into high politics. Rubicon, although it begins and ends with a murder and a solution, is really more about the civil war than it is about solving a crime. It also features a fictitious, rather than a real, murder, for the real Numerius, who may or may not have been related to Pompey, sailed away with Pompey at Brundisium, according to Plutarch. I have to confess a slight preference for the solving of real murders in Gordianus books, but fictional murders are fine too and there aren’t that many real murder mysteries to solve!
Rubicon also features the return of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, in a role he is not known to have played historically, but which is reasonably plausible. When I first read Roman Blood, before I started studying Classics, I didn’t realise that Tiro was a real person and I was overjoyed to find out that not only was Cicero’s likeable slave real, he was manumitted and became famous for inventing shorthand, among other things. Though I think a part of me is still half-convinced he’s fictional, which is perhaps why I buy his covert actions so easily. Anyway, it's nice to see him back here.
Right at the end of the novel, Saylor includes a brief mention of Caesar's dream, not quite as well known as his wife's but fairly famous, in which he dreamed he had sex with his own mother. The interesting things about this dream is that it moves. Suetonius says the dream occured while Caesar was quaestor in Spain (Julius 7). Dio Cassius agrees that it happened in Spain, but doesn't mention the dream until he is describing the later civil war between Caesar and Pompey, to emphasise the horror and the awfulness of Caesar's actions (41.24). Plutarch goes one step further. Never one to let history get in the way of a good story, Plutarch claims that Caesar had this dream the night before he crossed the Rubicon (Caesar 32). Historically, Suetonius is probably the most likely to be closer to the truth, but Plutarch moves the dream so as to make Caesar's violation of the river and of Rome seem more dreadful - and Saylor does exactly the same thing. The dream is so much more dramatic when placed there, and can say so much more about Caesar and his character and his actions, it's not hard to see why Plutarch's version of the story works better for a novel.
This novel does an excellent job of explaining exactly what’s going on at each stage of the war. Where Rome frequently leaves the viewer somewhat baffled and even anxious to rejoin Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier simply because at least their plotlines are comprehensible, Saylor not only explains exactly what’s going on, he also gets right into the minds of his characters who, unlike us, do not know what is going to happen. Sometimes, retellings of the civil war come with a sense of inevitability; we know Caesar won, he was always going to win. But Saylor fully explores the options open to the Pompeian party, and why Pompey might have done what he did, and for a moment you almost think Pompey might even stand a chance.
Saylor also takes care to explain the history of his main character, partly to catch up new readers and partly because it’s central to the story. I found the idea of the tiny roll of paper inside a shoe rather surprising and a teensy bit OTT, but it did a very good job of reminding readers, or explaining to new readers, who Gordianus and his family were and what connections they had to Cicero, Pompey and Caesar. I was surprised to see old readers forcibly reminded of Saylor’s most shocking ending so far, in which the murder of the philosopher Dio turned out to have been committed by Gordianus’ own young daughter, Diana, in revenge for Dio’s previous abuse of her mother. As it turned out, this was preparing the reader for Saylor to go for the only resolution potentially more surprising than the culprit being the detective’s daughter, as the culprit in this case is Gordianus himself.
I wasn’t quite as shocked by this resolution as I was some years ago when I read the Dio story. I had wondered way back at the beginning why no one seemed to suspect Gordianus himself when he seemed the obvious prime suspect, and I wondered why Gordianus didn’t seem to be making any great effort to actually locate the killer before going to Pompey. I hadn’t actually guessed though, and it was a very satisfying solution. Gordianus’ motive made sense, and there were no glaring passages that couldn’t work with this conclusion. I’ve always been a bit disappointed that I can never fully appreciate The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because I already know the central conceit (I have a feeling I’ve ruined the final Poirot book for myself as well, which I’m really miffed about, but don’t say any more in case I’m wrong!) so this book made me happy, since I was able to properly appreciate this clever ploy, well done. You’d think that would be the end for the detective, but since the motive is understandable and the circumstances extreme, I think most readers will forgive Gordianus, just this once.
What I did see coming, once Gordianus had confessed, was the final twist – that Meto had never betrayed Caesar at all and got the documents to Numerius deliberately. This seemed completely obvious to me from the moment Gordianus explained his motive, it’s just the sort of double bluff that gets played in these things, and Meto’s loyalty to Caesar had been so strong it would be very odd for him to have turned against him. At least this spared me from being completely depressed at the rather dark and downbeat ending, since I was pleased to have been right. Saylor does offer some consolation though, in the form of Numerius’ girlfriend, who has found a way to keep her baby after all, and of course, Davus and the rest of Gordianus’ family are OK. This prevents the ending from being so depressing it might put one off the books all together! As it is, I'm wondering whether I can get hold of a reasonably priced copy of Last Seen in Massilia, since the ending was also almost veering into cliffhanger territory...