Tuesday, 2 November 1999
Steven Saylor: Catilina's Riddle (1993)
Review number: 378
The third novel in Saylor's series about Gordianus the Finder - a series also including several short stories - tells of one of the most famous events of the last years of the Roman Republic, the Catiline Conspiracy. Now well into middle age, Gordianus has retired to a farm north of Rome, inherited from a friend in the teeth of opposition from the friend's family, who own all the farms surrounding Gordianus' new one.
Gordianus rejoices in leaving behind the corrupt politics of the city, but starts to find that there is something missing from his new life. Then he receives a visitor, who is an agent of Cicero, now consul of Rome, and also of Catilina, his populist opponent. Catilina is looking for somewhere to stay outside Rome, and Gordianus' farm would be an ideal location. Catilina has come up with a political riddle, about whether the current head of the Roman state is to be preferred to the headless body (the common people); Gordianus is to use this as the basis of a message to send to Rome to signify his acceptance or rejection of the proposition. But then a headless body is discovered in the stables. Gordianus takes this to be a threat from Catilina because of the riddle, and so, frightened for his family, he sends the message that he prefers the headless body, thus accepting the proposal.
The investigation in this crime novel is into the provenance of the headless corpse. This is in fact a fairly obvious mystery; Catilina's Riddle has one of the easiest to unravel plots that I have read. It is the political aspect of the story which is more interesting, and this is very well done indeed. It is common to regard the Roman Republic as virtuous by comparison with the Empire; Saylor reminds us that the last years of the Republic were hardly commendable. As well as the rather seedy machinations of the politicians, the way they flattered and manipulated, there are also more petty, private, sordid matters that Saylor highlights. The treatment of slaves, for example, often served as an outlet for both cruel and depraved appetites.
From a historical point of view, it is hard to know the true events of the Catiline conspiracy. The only accounts we have come from his political enemies and could hardly be said to be models of reporting, consisting to a large degree of rhetorical denunciations. Saylor has created a plausible story, with none of the historical characters painted as pure black or white.