Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Vita Brevis by Ruth Downie

Vita Brevis: A Gaius Ruso Mystery by Ruth Downie --- 368 pages including Author's Note

This is the seventh book in Downie's Medicus series of mysteries set in the waning years of the Roman Empire.

Gaius Petreius Ruso, formerly a medical officer for the 20th Legion serving in Britannia, his British wife Tilla and their adopted baby daughter Mara have upped stakes and moved to the city of Rome.  Ruso has accepted an offer from his former tribune, Publius Accius, to exchange the (relative) security of an army career and come along and seek his fortune in the heart of the Imperium.

Unfortunately, Accius proves to be an unfortunate choice for a patron, as his aristocratic family does not stand high in the favor of the current Emperor Hadrian.  Accius had hoped to be appointed to a high office to begin his climb up the ladder to success; instead he has been put in charge of the municipal department of street cleaning. So Ruso has been left to mostly fend for himself, trying to find a medical post to tide his family over while he waits for Accius to deliver on his big promises.

What Accius finally delivers is a temporary job filling in for Dr. Kleitos, a Greek freedman who's been called out of town on family business. Kleitos is also the trusted personal physician of one of Rome's biggest real estate developers, Horatius Balbus --- a very wealthy man who just happens to be the father of the the young woman Accius wants to marry.

But Ruso tells himself it's a start, and a chance to move his family into decent lodgings instead of the bug-infested slum they've been renting (from that selfsame Horatius Balbus). What neither Ruso or Tilla expect is the dead man they find stuffed into a barrel that is sitting on the porch of their new apartment when they arrive. Nor did they anticipate that Dr. Kleitos, his family, and all of their belongings (including the records of Kleitos' medical practice) would vanish into the night, leaving behind nothing but a cryptic note "Be careful who you trust."

Meanwhile Horatius Balbus demands that Ruso continue to supply him with the "theriac" --- a concoction which is supposed to build up resistance to poisons --- that Kleitos had prescribed. But without Kleitos' medical notes Ruso has no way to duplicate the prescription.  He attempts to put together a harmless substitute to satisfy his demanding patient while he consults with another practitioner. But then, to his horror, Horatio Balbus collapses and dies in the street while returning from a dinner in the house of a business rival.

Is Ruso responsible for the death of his patient? Or was Horatius Balbus poisoned by his rival? Or was he murdered by someone else who intends for Ruso to take the blame?  Behind the glittering facade of Imperial Rome lurks a world of danger for those burdened by conscience like Ruso and Tilla.

Click HERE to read the review from Kirkus.

Click HERE to read the review from Publishers Weekly.

Click HERE to read a review from the Italophile blog.

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