Monday, March 14, 2011

Opening move

I shouldn't start a new mystery series. I just shouldn't. I've got a list of between 75 and 100 where I keep very careful track of which book I should read next in each one. Now that I've counted them up, though (yikes!) ... what's one more? So, here is the first in the SPQR [Senatus Populusque Romanus, i.e., The Senate and People of Rome] series: The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts. This title is pretty old (1990) and my library has just one copy of the print version. I downloaded the audiobook because I was trying to quickly find an mp3 to demo. Simon Vance narrates, cousin Mary had recommended it, I thought I was pretty safe.

The scion of an aristocratic Roman family, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is trying to make a name for himself by commanding a cohort of the civilian police force, the Vigiles. The novel takes place as the Roman republic is beginning its decline into empire, sometime in the first century BCE (maybe a few years before the BBC series, Rome). When there's a murder on his patch -- even though his father and other Roman power brokers all tell him to let it lie -- Decius must investigate. The victim is a freedman and former gladiator, hardly worth mentioning; but when another body shows up shortly after the first one, Decius soon finds out that he's snooping about where some people don't want him to be.

This novel is extremely slight (less than 300 pages). I pegged the murderer soon after the character was introduced. Roberts spends a fair amount of time walking Decius about Rome (lots of info about Rome), encountering famous Romans (Caesar, Cicero, and Pompey all make appearances) who then explain the political situation through dialogue. Because of this, I had a hard time sustaining interest in the story, for when the plot kicked in between informative sections I had difficulty recalling what I already knew. (In fairness, I took way too long to listen to the audio's short seven hours.) And while the murderer came as no surprise, I'm still not clear on why (it's one of those mysteries where the wealthy and privileged are responsible, yet able to avoid punishment).

But Simon Vance is reading. The novel's (series'?) conceit is that Decius is relating his memoirs. He's an old man and he's seen a lot of history. Vance voices Decius with a dry, slightly quavery voice. Unlike some narrators, Vance can do this and make it sound like an actual old person is speaking. When Decius is conversing with other characters, the narrator uses a younger man's voice. It's a pretty neat trick. Vance brings his many fine accents and vocal mannerisms to the novel's other characters: There are a significant number of foreigners, people of lower classes, and power-hungry politicians, each of whom has a distinct voice. It's the narration we've come to expect (ho hum!) from this talented reader.

My cousin Mary reads widely, and I almost always enjoy her recommendations. (Many years ago I asked her for some recommendations for my book group and they hated everything she suggested, which included High Fidelity and Less Than Zero. Needless to say, that's not my book group anymore!) If I go on with this series, though, I think I'll try print next.

The King's Gambit (SPQR I) by John Maddox Roberts
Narrated by Simon Vance
Blackstone Audio, 2008. 7:19

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