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The author and his books:
In At The Death is the eleventh book in the series to feature Roman detective Marcus Corvinus. The series is set during the reign of Tiberius and mixes historical fact with fiction in a number of the novels. 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 In At The Death 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
Nineteen Year Old Sextus Papinius is dead. The official line is that he threw himself out of a tenement window and therefore committed suicide. But Titus Minicius Natalis, faction master of the Greens chariot racing team is not so sure. Papinus's grandfather was Natalis' first patron and lent him the cash to move from Sicily to Rome so Natalis feels that he owes a debt to the family.
Having previous encountered Corvinus (in "White Murder", see list of novels above) Natalis offers him 50,000 silver pieces to investigate the death and to perhaps provide some answers to Papinus's grieving mother.
Hearing conflicting accounts from a number of sources only serves to muddy the waters further but, when at last Corvinus feels that he's starting to get somewhere events take a rather worrying turn.....
One of the nice things about this book, along with a number of other in the Corvinus series, is that it mixes historical fact with fiction. Sextus Papinius, the dead man, was a real person and his death is referred to by Roman historian Tacitus in "Annals". Wishart helpfully gives a Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the book which allows the reader not only distinguish between the historical characters (their names are given in block capitals) and the fictional characters (names given in usual type) but which also gives some basic information about the characters occupations or relationships to other characters.
Likewise at end the of the book there's an author's note which sets the events of the novel in historical context, explains what parts of the book have been fictionalised by the author and which also tells you what happened to a number of the characters after the story ends.
So, is the book itself any good? The answer is yes. Wishart lets Corvinus not only to question various characters in the book but also to discuss his theories 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.
It's the domestic moments that provide some of the funniest incidents in the book. In this story Perilla's agreed to take care of a neighbours dog whilst the lady in question goes away on holiday. Of course, Corvinus finds himself lumbered with walking the dog who is called Placida. Being huge, flatulent and a complete dustbin as far as food is concerned isn't likely to make a good impression with Corvinus but he soon finds that Placida can be useful in other ways.
Wishart effortlessly evokes the atmosphere of ancient Rome with his descriptions of the Green's stables, the tenement where Papinius dies, and with information about Roman libraries, the Senate, the market place, various official buildings and the sort of food eaten at mealtimes. That's not to say the novel is heavily descriptive, it's not, but Wishart gives enough detail to transport you back in time and imagine the location described.
On the flip side of the coin the novel has a somewhat contemporary feel as Corvinus uncovers blackmail, bribery and corruption. There are older Roman ladies having relationships with younger men, details about divorce, an initial musing about whether Natalis and Papinius were actually boyfriends and Corvinus's issues with Placida make the reader feel as if society hasn't changed all that much in the past 2000 or so years. Corvinus also has a habit of addressing pretty much everyone he meets as "pal" which can tend to get a bit wearing after a while until you reflect how many people you barely know address you as "mate" nowadays.
The novel, as with the rest in the Corvinus series, is narrated by Corvinus himself in the first person. It's not the sort of book you can skim lightly over and still keep a tight enough grip on the plot to know exactly what's going on. There are a lot of twists and turns so you need to sit down and read it properly if you want to follow the events as they unfold. Corvinus as a character is quite forthright in his views and isn't afraid to use the "F" word on more than one occasion. So, if you're the sort of person who's easily offended by bad language then this isn't a book for you.
If, on the other hand you're looking for a well written and plotted detective novel, which, for my money is better than anything Lindsey Davies is turning out then look no further than this, or indeed any of Wishart's other novels.
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks (6 Sep 2007)
At the time of writing this book is available from Amazon for £7.19 whilst Play.com are charging £5.99.