Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Gladiator Dies Only Once

The advantage to writing historical mysteries is that the author can place his stories as far apart as he wishes.  Steven Saylor's Roman detective Gordianus aged 31 years over the course of 10 novels published between 1991 and 2005, with nearly a decade between the early novels and months between later ones.   Gordianus's timeline speeds up because Saylor places him as a bit player in major events, and those events become more frequent as the Roman Republic segues into Empire.  

A Gladiator Dies Only Once is Saylor's second collection of Gordianus short stories, and like The House of the Vestals, it both fills in gaps in Gordianus's personal history and provides insight into Roman culture.  He provides a primer on gladiator games and funeral rites, the manufacture of garum, Roman sports, and the foibles of historical characters.  What strikes me is how modern Gordianus's life really is.  In one story, his pre-teen son has replaced toys with statues of mythological creatures, like a modern boy replacing Matchbox cars with action figures.  Gordianus endures rather than enjoys dinners with his frequent client Cicero, the embodiment of the pompous, long-winded politician.  He takes cases he doesn't like solely for money and deals with the cynical ends to which his work is applied.  Saylor, like Miss Marple, knows that human nature is the same, no matter what the setting.


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