Tuesday, 21 November 2000

Stephen Saylor: The Venus Throw (1995)

Edition: Robinson, 1999
Review number: 689

The Venus Throw is probably the best of Saylor's series of novels featuring Roman private detective Gordianus the Finder. Once again, its subject is one of the famous cases for which Cicero was an advocate at the trial. Rome in the first century BC was a fascinating place, full of interesting people and tumultuous events leading to the formation of the Empire. It is a good illustration of the Chinese curse about interesting times; it was a supremely dangerous place to be, as unscrupulous men and women played political games for really high stakes.

The particular trial in The Venus Throw involves some of the most colourful characters of the time, Clodia and her brother Clodius, immortalised as Lesbia and Lesbius in the poems of Catullus. Coming from a distinguished patrician family, the Claudii, they had changed the spelling of their name so that Clodius could sound more plebian, mark working class, and attract the popular vote in elections. The pair were famous for their licentiousness as well as for their beauty, and were rumoured to be incestuous lovers. The devotion and disgust Clodia in particular could inspire is one of the major inspirations in the greatest of Catullus' poems.

Gordianus is involved because part of the trial is connected with the murder of the Egyptian philosopher Dio. occurred on a night when Gordianus was leaving Rome to visit his son Meto, on the staff of Julius Caesar in Illyria; Gordianus feels personally involved not just because Dio was an old friend whom he had met in Alexandria in his youth, but because the philosopher had come to visit him that evening in fear for his life.

Investigating what happened to Dio at Clodia's instigation leads Gordianus in all kinds of directions, including wondering what Clodia's interest is. Dio was in Rome as part of a delegation from Egypt trying to influence Rome's interference in that country's affairs, but the members of this party have gradually been killed off, presumably at the instigation of exiled Egyptian king Ptolemy, now living in Rome. But the difficulties are to prove this, and to work out which of the various Roman political factions are involved.

The background, always one of Saylor's strengths, is particularly well drawn in The Venus Throw; the characterisation of Catullus is one reason for this. The sense that the reader has of being involved in events is one of the strongest of any historical novel I have ever read.The characters, the new ones in this novel (especially Clodia and the brilliant, disillusioned Catullus) as well as the established series ones, are vivid and believeable. The puzzle is difficult, well presented and sensibly thought out. This is historical detective fiction at its best.

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