Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1095
This novel introduces Corvinus, who became the central character in Wishart's series of Roman detective stories. He is based on a real person, though Wishart has cut his age by about a decade and invented most of the details of his life and character. The setting is the early first century AD, during the reign of Tiberius (disrespectfully referred to by Corvinus as "the Wart").
Much of the plot is based on actual events, too; in fact, it centres around some of the best known parts of the history of the Empire. It seems to have a small beginning, when rich young patrician Corvinus is approached by the stepdaughter of poet Ovid; exiled by Augustus for immorality, Ovid has died abroad and his family want permission to bring his ashes back to Rome for burial. They approach Corvinus because his family have long been their patrons, and this exertion of influence on their behalf is precisely what a client got out of their relationship with a patron. It seems a reasonable request, but when Corvinus meets with a heavy handed flat refusal for no good reason, he begins an investigation into what is behind it, despite warnings that this is likely to prove extremely dangerous. These predictions are justified as Corvinus begins to dig into plots and treason among the Imperial family and into what really happened in the Teutoburger Forest, when the destruction of three legions commanded by Varus marked the end of Roman expansion into Germany and the natural boundary of the Elbe. Each new discovery made by Corvinus leads to a more outrageous interpretation of events and of how they might be connected to the exile of an apolitical poet.
The story itself is told in a camp and outrageous way, more like Wishart's novel about Petronius, Nero, than his later Corvinus tales. It's an entertaining read, though not to be relied upon as a guide to the history of the period unless you're into conspiracy theories. (From a historical point of view, it's most interesting for highlighting the patron-client relationship, which is quite different from the way that our own society claims to operate and which is rarely emphasised by historical novelists dealing with the period.) Its central characters (Corvinus and Ovid's stepdaughter Perilla) are convincing and easy to identify with, even for those of us who haven't lived the life of a pampered aristocrat. The background conveys a sense of the period despite inaccuracies introduced for the sake of the plot. In short, Ovid succeeds admirably as an escapist piece of light reading.