Albert A. Bell’s fifth mystery novel featuring Pliny the Younger and his sidekick, the historian Tacitus, is named for one of the two narrators, Aurora, the slave woman who had grown up in the elder Pliny’s household as a playmate of the younger Pliny (now master of said estate).
By this stage in the lives of the main characters (following on Casebook IV), the attraction between master and slave has grown too strong to resist, even though a marriage looms between Pliny and a nice enough woman of his social class. That, a serious medical diagnosis, problems with the current emperor, and the mysteries of Judaism, with adherents among Pliny’s familia, form the background. Complicated his homelife might be, but the mysteries that drag him out of there and off to the countryside are far more so. It’s not even a case of peeling back layers of onion skin, but of aberrations ranging from the seedy to the horrible, all the while fighting against coincidence and loss.
Pliny doesn’t believe in coincidence. Lacking much faith or belief in the gods, he doesn’t believe those men following at a distance are innocently traveling to the same destination as the Plinian party, no matter what Tacitus and Aurora might say, and Pliny is right, of course. On the other hand, and just as much a contradiction as wearing a Tyche goddess amulet for luck when you don’t believe in it, he can’t scientifically explain away the magical Jewish cure that lifts Aurora’s blindness — for the eyes of Aurora refer not only to the second narrator and the windows of the soul belonging to the love of Pliny’s life, but to her loss of sight following an incident involving some minor, extremely disagreeable characters.
The mystery begins when Aurora and Pliny try to save the life of one woman only to learn that her story doesn’t hold. The next story they hear causes Pliny anxiety because, with informers everywhere, it could land him in hot water with Emperor Domitian. When the real story emerges, the people telling it behave in a loving, protective manner, which gives us a break from what we would probably call the psychopaths. That the couple are eager to take in a biologically unrelated, abandoned boy, who who has been calling them aunt and uncle, makes us root for their version.
The many women in Pliny’s life make it difficult to steer a safe course. He can’t let his mother know that he knows what’s wrong with her. He doesn’t want his fiancee to tell his mother that she knows he prefers his slave to her. He doesn’t really want to marry the fiancee’s older sister, a widow and shrew, either, but somehow he comes out alive, if scathed, and even manages to steer a course that will make Aurora and his mother happy.
Set against a disgusting, Medea-esque murder, a snapshot of Roman social mores in the first century, humor, and working through seemingly impossible details to find the truth conspire to make this story worth your time if you’re a fan of the Roman mystery genre.
Also see my quick take on Bell’s Corpus Conundrum.