As senior surgeon for the 20th legion in Britain, Gaius Petreus Ruso has had to deal with everything from murdered bar maids to mystical stag men. But when he returns home to his family's villa in southern Gaul after receiving a cryptic request marked "urgent", he's hardly prepared for what he finds there. His sister has fallen in love with a gladiator, his brother is about to be sued by the swindling agent of the local senator, and the brother of his sister-in-law has gone missing in a suspicious shipping mishap. To make matters worse, the the senator's agent drops dead of apparent poisoning in Ruso's study and Ruso himself quickly becomes the prime suspect. What's a well-meaning but financially strapped medicus to do?
Although the scoundrel's last utterance points to Ruso's social climbing ex-wife who had married the man not realizing he did not own the sumptuous villa where he resided, the rascal appears to have also had contentious encounters with Ruso's step mother, sister, and even the voluptuous widow next door who is almost singlehandedly running an amphora manufacturing business. Ruso's not even sure he can safely discount the man's grief-stricken sister. Furthermore, Ruso learns that the agent arranged for the worm-riddled vessel that his sister-in-law's brother disappeared in so he wonders if his brother's wife, the seemingly loving mother of his five rambunctious nieces and nephews, could have slipped something into the cool drink she offered the man when he came to the farm looking for Ruso.
Fortunately, Ruso brought along his British housekeeper/lover Tilla, whose unassuming way of looking at events with the innocence of child, helps Ruso resolve his latest gaggle of delimmas without alienating his family or landing in the arena as the afternoon snack for the beastkeeper's bear. Once again Ruth Downie has conjured up late 1st century CE Roman life and peopled it with characters that provide a panoply of suspects along with plot twists to keep readers guessing until the gratifying climax.
The ending leaves you wondering, though, if Ruso is going to give up the army life, settle down in Gaul and make an honest woman of Tilla. I hope not. I prefer the setting of a military infirmary or outpost in the wilds of Roman Britain to the more Romanized society of southern Gaul, although this book was certainly enjoyable. Another aspect of the book that made me nervous was the introduction of the local cult of Christos and Tilla's involvement with it. Fortunately, Downie invested the experience with humor created by Tilla's naivete about other religions and her effort to compare the new religion with those she is more familiar with. I just didn't want the series to become a platform for idealizing early Christianity and promoting one religion of the period over others that were fervently and, in many cases, reverently practiced at the time.
I look forward to sharing Ruso and Tilla's next adventure. Fortunately, a quick check on Amazon shows Downie will be releasing the next installment, entitled "Caveat Emptor", in December 2010. The book description confirms that Ruso and Tilla do return to Britannia to investigate the disappearance of a local tax collector. I see he's going to be in Veralamium, the Roman settlement that became St. Alban's. I've actually been to the ruins of Veralamium so it should be great fun to read a story with that setting.