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07 January 2011

Hooked on Classics, yet again

I can justify this post to myself as advance promotion for my Elgin Marbles romance, The Edge of Impropriety, due out in mass paperback next spring -- or as a warning that you might want to buy it now, with its gorgeous trade cover while they last...

But really, it's pure delicious escapism that's plummeted me into the midst of Steven Saylor's fabulous Roma Sub Rosa mystery series, set during the final years of the Roman Republic and teaching me oodles about a history I find increasingly fascinating.

And, I should add, featuring a detective hero I'm entirely smitten with.

Gordianus the Finder is not only smart and sensual, he's deeply good and deeply inquisitive about his world. Besides his intelligence, Gordianus's major asset seems to be what he learned during his youthful wanderings outside of Rome, particularly in Alexandria, where Greek culture and Asian mystical traditions have taught him something about the provincialism of his own world (and where he acquires his slave, and later wife, Bethesda).

A Roman citizen, but not an aristocrat, and always hard-up for money to support his growing family and the rambling house he's inherited in a raffish quarter of the city, Gordianus has gained a reputation as... well, actually, Saylor doesn't use the nineteenth century term "detective," but that's what Gordianus is, available for hire by Roman aristocrats needing to find out who committed this or that high-profile murder, typically linked to this or that turning point in his tumultuous historical period.

Placed just highly enough in the social order to be able to be seated at banquets (and the food is sometimes terrific and always fascinating) but not highly enough to escape his hosts' raised eyebrows at his lack of (shall we say) ton, Gordianus is exactly the guide we want, to lead us through a brutal yet highly complex society. Like their creators, fictional detectives ought always to be part insiders and part outsiders, adept at the rituals, fluent in the talk, but also deeply skeptical and even able to learn to see more deeply into the not-so-nice inner workings of things as they are.

As in my favorite of the books so far, Arms of Nemesis, set against the backdrop of Spartacus's slave revolt. All privileged Romans are nervous about being murdered in their beds. But for Gordianus, this new awareness of his situation leads him to meditations like the following, as he peeks below deck of the galley taking him to the luxurious Baian (Neapolitan) bayside villa of his client, the richest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus (yes, Sir Laurence Olivier in the movie Spartacus).

It is curious that a man can sail upon many ships in his life and never wonder at the hidden motive power that drives them, yet this is how most people live their lives every day -- men eat and dress and go about their business, and never give a thought to the sweat of all the slaves who labored to grind the grain and spin the cloth and pave the roads, wondering about these things no more than they wonder about the blood that heats their bodies or the mucus that cradles their brains.

Mucus doesn't cradle the brain, does it? Because not only do I not typically wonder enough about the workings of the social machine, but the natural one, reminding myself sometimes of the character in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia for whom it would be pretty much the same (and maybe more aesthetically pleasing) if the sun went around the earth, as it certainly seems to do.

And of course there's no clear boundary between the social and the natural. What makes us different from the ancients is that we build our world on energy wrested from the ground, while they depended upon huge numbers of humans, in Gordianus's words "become more fuel... consumed, drained, and discarded."

In neither case, I guess, do most of us pay enough attention. At best, most of us live mostly in the world as we find it. Which is why I love historical fiction like Saylor's that leads us to a strange, lost, wonderful and terrible world we don't take for granted, and peeks beneath the surface, in the company of a decent, all-too-human hero like Gordianus -- a very lucky man, as Gordianus thinks, looking in the mirror, not fawned over by Fortune but not despised by her either. A man perfectly placed in his world to guide us through it.

Readers and writers -- do you think of where to place your point of view, how your favorite or most useful characters are situated in the historical world?

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7 Comments:

Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

I need to check that series out now. Thanks!

12:39 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You'll love it, Victoria!

12:10 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

What makes us different from the ancients is that we build our world on energy wrested from the ground, while they depended upon huge numbers of humans,

We still depend upon huge numbers of humans, we've just removed them even further than simply below decks . . . humans still pick our fruits and vegetables, sew our clothes, make our jewelry, electronics, toys, etc. And wealthy people (a group which includes pretty much all Westerners, even those on the dole), for the most part, don't give this a second thought.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I guess I try, in my books, just a little, to keep that double focus -- on people in the foreground of the story and people who were living stories just as real to them.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I want my stories to be about the people - first, last and always. The events and emotions that swirl around them are like the ocean that shapes the rocks or perhaps the winds that shape history, that change the face of the Sphinx after so long. Ultimately I want the people to be the masterpiece shaped and defined by those forces that sweep over them.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

For another period series that I absolutely love try Mel Starr's Chronicles of Sir Hugh de Singleton. The series is set in the latter half of the fourteenth century and the hero, Sir Hugh is a medieval surgeon and the bailiff for the local lord. Thoroughly enjoyable and insightful.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I so agree with what you're saying, Louisa. The Starr books sound wonderful, the premise and positioning of the hero (medieval surgeon and the bailiff for the local lord) beautifully chosen.

3:23 PM  

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