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Excellent Roman mystery featuring Pliny the Younger and his young wife Calpurnia
on 2 July 2013
Roman Games by Bruce Macbain was one of the historical fiction surprises of last year, its reluctant detective Pliny the Younger an unusual and pleasing hero, his Roman world well realised, corrupt, striving to be better than it is. I have been looking forward to The Bull Slayer ever since.
Rather intriguingly, The Bull Slayer is set a full 14 years after the close of Roman Games. Domitian is now dead (to big sighs of relief, no doubt) and the more conventional, if pinickity Trajan is emperor. Pliny is an established figure in government, newly Governor of the institutionally-challenged and not entirely content province of Bithynia; his child-bride Calpurnia is 28 and Bithynia's first lady, entertaining the wives of her husband's officials with stately dinners, improving herself with Greek lessons from Timotheus, a pedagogue intent on edifying his pupil with Homeric epic. Unfortunately, when Balbus, the second highest ranking Roman official in Bithynia and the man in charge of finances, disappears it's up to Pliny to investigate what has happened to him and who might benefit from his possible death. Last time, Pliny had Martial helping him. This time he has the equally famous, and salacious, author Suetonius by his side.
This is a province that spans three worlds - Rome, Greece and Persia. While it endures Roman bureaucracy, parts of it exalt and remember, falsely, its Greek past while others welcome mysterious Persian religions, in particular the cult of Mithras. It's into this unhealthy mix of corruption, pride, venality and superstition that Pliny finds himself and his case. The more he uncovers, the more is hidden. His frustration at dealing with local officials with all their secret agendas is palpable. The earthquakes that shake the ground under his feet don't help.
But what makes The Bull Slayer stand out is not so much the mystery, intriguing as that undoubtedly is, but what is going on at home. Pliny's wife Calpurnia is a fascinating, deeply sympathetic figure. Here is a young woman, married as a child to a much older (though young himself) man with whom she dutifully falls in love but now, 14 years later, she must deal with a stillborn birth, life in a foreign land with a status that leaves her especially alienated, and a husband who is often distant. He is never less than kind or patronising but this is more subtle a portrait than that. She loves art, she wants to learn, she wants to be able to discuss matters with her learned husband, but she also wants to be loved. Calpurnia is no flighty girl. She is strong but she is also very human. Bruce Macbain is to be congratulated on his portrait of Calpurnia, he really is.
The Bull Slayer also raises the question of slavery in a very special way, as the issue affects Pliny and Calpurnia and, in return, their male and female slaves. The novel has much to intrigue with its evocation of mysterious eastern religions, political corruption, Roman supremacy and Greek servitude, but it's in its treatment of this young woman, Calpurnia, and the relationship between master and slave that The Bull Slayer stands out. And it really stands out.
As with Roman Games, my only issue with The Bull Slayer is its length. Again, the novel is much too short at about 260 pages (resulting in 4 not 5 stars). I read it in just one day. I would have liked to have spent much more time in the company of Pliny and his fascinating wife Calpurnia. I hope we get more. I'm grateful for the review copy.