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The author and his books:
Illegally Dead is the twelfth book in the series to feature Roman detective Marcus Corvinus. The majority of the series is set during the reign of Tiberius and mixes historical fact with fiction in a number of the novels. By the time Illegally Dead is set Caligula is Roman Emperor. So far it consists of:-
+ Ovid (1995)
+ Germanicus (1997)
+ Sejanus (1998)
+ The Lydian Baker (1998
+ Old Bones (2000)
+ Last Rites (2001)
+ White Murder (2002)
+ A Vote For Murder (2003)
+ Parthian Shot (2004)
+ Food For The Fishes (2006)
+ In At The Death (2007)
+ Illegally Dead (2008)
It is not necessary to have read all of the previous books to enjoy Illegally Dead as Wishart's stories are, on the whole, self contained. There are however, various events that happen to Corvinus, his family and household in all of the books so reading them in order does allow the reader to see how the family and household has changed and developed over the years that the novels cover.
David Wishart has also written three other books which do not feature Marcus Corvinus. The first two concern the titular characters whilst The Horse Coin is set in Britain during the run-up to Boudicca's revolt. These books are:-
+ I, Virgil (1995)
+ Nero (1996)
+ The Horse Coin (1999)
David Wishart is married and combines writing with his work at Dundee University. You can find out more about his books at his website:- www.david-wishart.co.uk
The letter from Marilla, adopted daughter of Corvinus and his wife Perilla starts off innocently enough with details about the daily life in the household of her Aunt Marcia. But she's saved the killer punch until the end. Her boyfriend Clarus thinks there's been a murder.
The potential victim is Lucius Hostilius, one of the partners in the law firm at Castrimoenium. Potential victim because nobody can say for certain whether he was killed or not. It's the local doctor, Hyperion, who spots that Hostilius's medicine bottle has been filled with water. Was the medicine used to give Hostilius an overdose or did some careless slave just have an accident with it and replace the medicine with water so that they wouldn't get into trouble?
It soon becomes clear that Hostilius was indeed murdered but, having suffered from a change in his personality the prevailing view is that he's lost his mind and that the various things he's accused his family and friends of are nothing more than the ramblings of an unsound mind.
As the bodies start to pile up it seems that all of the suspects are being less than truthful about their relationship with Hostilius and the events which led up to his death. And if that wasn't enough to deal with it appears that Corvinus's truculent chef Meton could be having an affair with a married woman.....
The books in the Corvinus series fall into one of two camps. There are the novels which mix historical fact with fiction and feature real historical figures and events in the storyline and then there are others, like this one, in which all the characters and events are pure fiction.
So, what's this book like? Is it any good?
One of the main plus points of Wishart's Corvinus novels, as far as I'm concerned is the Roman period that they're set in. This means that there no danger whatsoever of this or any other of Wishart's novels getting bogged down in a myriad of forensic detail or any sort of psychological slant on the murders committed. The decision to use a period before the dawn of modern science forces Wishart, and the reader, to concentrate more on motive, means, opportunity and what the suspects say (or don't say) rather than getting help from other scientific sources.
What's good about this book is that even though it's set in the past some aspects of it will still feel very current to today's reader. Lucius Hostilius, for example, is obviously suffering from some sort of mental condition (possibly Alzheimer's) although this obviously isn't fully understood (by today's standards) by the town's doctor Hyperion. In terms of working out who the murderer might be this complicates things somewhat when compared with the other novels that Corvinus appears in.
Readers of detective fiction obviously expect some or all of the suspects to lie about their interaction(s) with the person or persons who have been murdered. They're usually on safer ground with any information given about what the murdered person has done or said before they met their untimely end. Hostilius's illness clouds the water still further as he's accused his wife, brother in law, business partner and a few other people besides of various things ranging from adultery to personal betrayal. Have one, or more, of his accusations actually been grounded in truth rather than being a product of his confused mental state? So, there are plenty of suspects who might have had cause to kill him if you're one of those readers that likes to work out "whodunnit" before the detective does.
As with the rest of the Corvinus series the story is told in the first person and Corvinus often spends time discussing the developments in the case with his wife Perilla. This allows the reader to feel as if they're getting to know Corvinus and understand how his thought patterns work without ever making you feel that the plot is so blatantly obvious that you've solved it halfway through the story as some crime novels can do.
The move from Rome to Castrimoenium is a nice one as we get to met a couple of characters from an earlier novel (A Vote For Murder) again, these being Quintus Labanius, head of the senate there and a local wineshop gossip who is amusingly named Gabba. The almost village like mentally of the place, where everyone else thinks that they know everything that is going on with all their neighbours is, I suppose, what most people think villages are like today and is something that most people will be able to identify with. Of course "village gossip" allows Wishart to send a couple of red herrings in Corvinus's direction before he finally arrives at the truth.
As with all the books in the Corvinus series whilst some elements of the plot are firmly rooted in their historical context other are timeless and could equally apply to a detective story set in current times. This time around we have Hyperion, the town doctor and his son Clarus, Marilla's boyfriend, offering to perform a post mortem on a slave to try and determine exactly how he died. Corvinus is absolutely horrified that anyone would want to cut a dead body open and a bit dubious about whether doing so will shed any further light on his investigations. On the flip side of the coin the themes of adultery, corruption, homosexuality, sibling rivalry and commercial espionage are as relevant today as they ever have been at any time in the past. In that sense, the novel still feels very contemporary.
On the domestic front we get a couple of nice subplots revolving about Marilla and her boyfriend Clarus ~ will they or won't they get married? ~ and there's an amusing plot thread featuring Corvinus's chef Meton who has suddenly smartened himself up and starting wearing aftershave. Could he possibly be having an affair with a married woman?
Wishart describes Castrimoenium and the surrounding area well enough for you to be able to get a picture of what the place is like without going overboard on the descriptive front. As always there's a dramatis personae at the start of the book to give you a little information about the characters you'll be meeting and their links to each other.
All in all, this is an enjoyable murder mystery although, like the others in the series it's something that you have to concentrate on or you may miss a vital clue. If you're a fan of historical murder mysteries and haven't yet discovered David Wishart then try out this novel or one of the others in the series.
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks (11 Dec 2008)
At the time of writing this book is available from Amazon for £5.35 whilst Play.com are charging £5.99.