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Ruso and the River of Darkness is the fourth book in R S (Ruth) Downie's Medicus series set in 2nd century Roman Britain.and featuring the Roman army medic and solver of murders, Gaius Petreius Ruso. Ruso first made his appearance in Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls when as a newly divorced army medic he was stationed in Deva (modern day Chester) in the homeland of the Brigantes tribe. He lived and worked in Deva with his friend and fellow medic, Valens, and their British housekeeper, Tilla (who Ruso had earlier rescued from an abusive owner). Tilla had such an unpronounceable British name that she's been given a more acceptable Roman one).
Time has moved on and three books later, Ruso has returned to Britain following a visit to his family in Gaul where he has done the decent thing and married Tilla. He and his new wife land back in Britannia in Londinium and visit Valens who now lives and works there. Valens has promised to help Ruso find work and he has, indeed, found a job for him but not as a doctor but to investigate the disappearance of Julius Asper, a tax collector who's disappeared with his brother, Bericus, plus a large amount of tax money from the good people of Verulamium (St Albans) and whose lady has just given birth in Valens' house.
Pretty soon, Julius's body turns up and Ruso soon surmises that his death did not occur through natural causes and, of course, more importantly to the powers-that-be, the money is still missing. Now Ruso has two mysteries to solve: who killed Julius Asper and where is the missing brother with the money? As he and Tilla investigate further, they become trapped in what is beginning to look very much like a conspiracy and they begin to wonder whether their own lives may be in danger.
The front cover states that this book is "in the tradition of Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor" and it's true that anybody who's familiar with the Falco novels of Lindsey Davis will recognise Ruso as something of a knock-off of that Roman hero, at least in terms of his wry outlook on life and slightly cynical view of his fellow men but there all similarity stops. Ruso is definitely his own man. True, like Falco, he's less than wealthy but unlike Falco who married above his station, Ruso's marital situation is if anything quite the reverse, as he's married a native Briton, his former slave-come-housekeeper-come mistress who possesses zero culinary skills and as it soon becomes obvious to the reader, there's absolutely nothing slavish about Tilla either!
Ruso is an immensely likeable character. He has money problems mainly caused by his father who died leaving the family estate just about bankrupt and although his brother is working hard on behalf of the family to support his high spending step-mother and step-sisters, Ruso has had to join the army in order to earn extra money to keep them all afloat. Financially, things are improving but newly arrived back in England, he needs a job which pays well and somewhere to live, though in the meantime, he's reluctantly accepted this role as investigator and is staying with Valens whose wife seems to be mysteriously absent, along with all the household slaves except one. Ruso's a decent man, not a native Roman but from Gaul which perhaps gives him a more objective view and his medical training has proved very useful in solving his investigations.
His friend Valens is the type who always seem to fall on their feet; a bit of a ne'er-do-well, he's married well, has his own practice and despite not being as good or as conscientious a doctor as Ruso, he's rapidly rising up the social ladder of Roman Britain but Ruso's ace up the sleeve is Tilla. She may be a lousy cook and sometimes a little grumpy but she's a perfect foil for him and gives him an insight into these strange British people which is not often granted to their Roman overlords. Tilla often acts as his interpreter, frequently coming up with useful information from the natives who can sometimes be tight-lipped when asked questions by a Roman, even if he is married to one of their own.
All the characters, in fact, are excellently drawn and wholly believable although Camma, Julius Asper's widow is perhaps a tad stereotypical with her Amazonian build and flaming red hair making her a dead ringer for everyone's idea of Boudica, further reinforced by the fact that she's from the Iceni tribe. The natives, though often wily, aren't at all of the cartoon variety and come across as very real with just the right amount of humour, too. Not the laugh out loud variety but the sort where a turn of events or a chance remark can bring on a wry smile. After all, life (and death) is a funny old business.
My knowledge of Ancient Britain is very limited so I'm not sure how authentic any of R S Downie's recreation is but the sense of time and place certainly feels right, as does the way Ruso sets about solving the mystery in a plausible manner with all his deductions and conclusion conducted using the methods of the time without benefit of much in the way of forensic science and only using medical knowledge around in the 2nd century. R S Downie uses broad brushstrokes to describe events which, to my mind, actually makes it all far more believable than the meticulously detailed but rather boring Gordianus books by Steven Saylor.
I should add that there is a very useful map of Roman Britain in the front of the book which details the major Roman towns (though not with their modern day equivalents) as well as the names of the tribes. Scottish and Irish readers will be pleased to note that those lands are simply marked as being populated by unconquered barbarians!
As this is the fourth book of this excellent series, you may prefer to begin with the first book although most of the back story is covered here and it's possible to read each novel as a stand-alone. If you enjoy well written historical mysteries set during the Roman occupation of Britain and presented in a light and easy to read style, you're bound to enjoy this one.
This is a newly published book which I borrowed from the library but it's also available in paperback and audio format from Amazon.
The UK titles in this series (US titles are different) so far are:
1. Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls
2. Ruso and the Demented Doctor
3. Ruso and the Root of All Evil
4. Ruso and the River of Darkness