In 2002 I reviewed All Roads Lead to Murder: A Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger By Albert A. Bell Jr.,
Pliny and Tacitus as sleuths? Better believe it! They met in Syria and are on their way home after having finished their respective tours of duty, Pliny as a military tribune, Tacitus on the governor's staff. Due to Pliny's aversion to sea travel, they take the land route. Stopping over in Smyrna, they are met by the – especially grisly – murder of a travel companion, Lucius Cornutus.
Pliny, young, impetuous, and – in the words of the author – slightly priggish, is nonetheless conscientious and takes command of the investigation until Florus, the governor of Asia Province, can be summoned. A bit unwillingly, Tacitus is drawn into this too.
Then came the sequel, The Blood of Caesar: A Second Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, a review of which is long overdue. We are now three months on and Pliny and Tacitus are back in Rome. They have been asked to dinner by none less than the emperor, Domitian, and finding that they may be the only guests, Tacitus, son-in-law of the emperor's enemy Agricola, thinks this is a trap. So both are quaking in their sandals. But there are fellow guests: The historian Josephus and the senator and informer Regulus, the sworn enemy of Pliny and his late uncle. And a trap it turns out to be, but of another kind.
After testing Pliny's deductive skills in a staged murder, Domitian entrusts Pliny with a letter from Agrippina to her son Nero, and tasks Pliny and Tacitus with finding out whether there are still persons around who carry “Caesar's Blood.” A potential fact that Domitian is deadly afraid of.
On first reading of this novel, I thought “All Roads lead to Murder” the better of the two, but now I think they are equally good, and I'm looking forward to the next installment.
Roman Games: A Plinius Secundus Mystery by Bruce MacBain, to be released in October, takes us to a thirty-five year old Pliny, in the last days of Domitian's reign, with the 15-day Roman Games beginning and the conspiracy to assassinate the emperor in full swing. Early on in the novel, there is the infamous black dinner, with a delicious twist by our author. Meanwhile, the senator and informer Ingentius Verpa has been murdered in his bed, and Pliny, who is acting deputy to the City Prefect, must solve the murder by the end of the games or all the household slaves will be executed.
Pliny balks at this, he is a lawyer, not an investigator, but he has no choice. He soon finds other suspects, the senator's concubine, his son, a mysterious house-guest ... red herrings abound. Was the senator's will changed? A suspiciously large legacy goes to the temple of Isis. And then there is a missing box of documents which the conspirators are anxious to lay there hands on.
Pliny makes the acquaintance of a rather unpleasant poet Martial who wheedles himself into becoming Pliny's client and helps him with his inquiries. Or does he? Pliny himself does not come off as the most pleasant character either, but then again he may not have been in real life. We also meet Pliny's very young and very pregnant wife Calpurnia.
The story is full of suspense with nice twists which keep the reader occupied. There is a missing Chief Vestal, excellent scenes in the Palace, and an imaginative depiction of Domitian's murder. On the minus side, this is a first novel and the prose is not quite as fluent as one could wish. Further, Mr. MacBain knows his subject, but in his eagerness to educate and give the reader a good background on things Roman, he sometimes gets a bit heavy-handed.
(There is no book jacket image available yet.)