Originally published in 1995
Claudia Seferius #1
Followed by Virgin Territory
Having connived her way into marriage with a wealthy wine merchant, Claudia quickly grows bored, so when her secret gambling debts spiral, she hits on a resourceful way to pay off the moneylenders. Offering “personal services” to high-ranking Romans. That is, until her clients start turning up dead.
When the charismatic investigator, Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, digs too deep for comfort, Claudia is forced to track down the killer herself. Before the authorities or her husband find out what she’s up to.
Claudia won’t be for everyone but I found her a fun sleuth and this case is a solid introduction for her.
When Claudia Seferius became the wife of a wealthy Roman wine merchant she may have expected a life of luxury but instead she found herself bored. Gambling seemed to offer some relief from the tedium but Claudia soon found herself in debt to some moneylenders and, lacking other ways to meet their demands, began offering her disciplinary services very discreetly (and expensively) to some of Rome’s leading men.
Unfortunately Claudia has run into a problem. Several of her clients have begun to turn up dead, stabbed with their eyes gouged out. When she stumbles onto the body of her latest client investigator Marcus Cornelius Orbilio finally gets a lead into the murders and starts to pursue her. Determined to clear her name (and hoping to kill the guilty party herself), Claudia starts her own investigation into the murder.
Claudia is a relatively unusual protagonist, particularly for a historical mystery, in that she is presented as an antihero. For one thing, we know that she is not particularly interested in justice but rather out of self-interest and the desire to hurt the killer for the inconvenience they have caused her.
On top of that we see she can be cruel, sharp-tongued and manipulative with everyone around her. Imagine Joan Collins in a toga or a much sharper Atia of the Julii from HBO’s Rome. I can imagine that some readers will struggle to like her or want to see her succeed – I, on the other hand, absolutely loved her.
Marilyn Todd makes a couple of choices that I think help the reader accept Claudia as a hero. First, she establishes that everyone else is pretty horrible too. From her sleazy brother-in-law who drunkenly propositions her and feels her up at family gatherings to the rich senators and proctors who preach Augustan values but pay for her services, we get a sense that Claudia is far from an outlier. She’s just playing the hypocrites at their own game.
Secondly, the brutality of the murders and the manner in which they clearly connect to Claudia helps us understand that there is a monster out to get her. We may not approve of her (though I suspect many readers will warm to her by the end of this book) but there is a clear reason for her to act and the authorities are shown to be clearly wanting – Orbilio aside.
While Todd titles the book I, Claudia (a pun on the classic Robert Graves novel), the narration is in the third person – though we are frequently treated to her thoughts and opinions. This allows us to get a sense of her acidic inner voice and also gives us a sense of her intelligence, allowing us to know what she makes of the clues she finds and the reasons behind most of her actions. One of the things I liked most about Claudia is that she is shown to be as sharp-witted as she is sharp-tongued and it is a consequence of this choice to let us hear her thoughts.
The most important of the other characters is Orbilio, the investigator who is working the case in a more official capacity. He is presented as being perceptive and dedicated to his career but has character flaws of his own. I will say that I liked him less than her but I liked the way he doggedly pursues her and felt that the pair spar pretty well throughout the novel.
Given Claudia’s secret profession and Orbilio’s appetites it probably won’t surprise you to hear that this novel has a few bawdy moments. The tone however is more cheeky than explicit, focusing on the craziness of a situation rather than sensual descriptions of body parts or activities.
Todd similarly avoids explicit descriptions of acts of violence but is able to convey a disturbing image of what the murderer has done. This sort of thing is a difficult balance to strike but I think the author mostly gets it right, conveying enough that the reader understands what happened without it seeming purely gratuitous.
I was similarly impressed by the choices the author makes in the way they present the historical background and setting. Basically this book belongs to the same school of thought as HBO’s Rome or the Falco books (though it is less stylized than either) – using occasional modern expressions to give the reader a sense of the spirit of a place and time.
There are plenty of interesting historical details and observations which the author does a good job of naturally integrating into the story, using them to illustrate a plot point or an aspect of a character. None felt forced which is pretty much what you want from a historical mystery.
One aspect of Roman life that I think is explored particularly well is the Augustan idea of matronly virtue. Claudia is compared frequently with her conservative sister-in-law and there are discussions of some of the Roman ideals such as the mother who spins garments herself and has multiple children.
I have focused a lot in my comments on the characterization of Claudia and the presentation of the setting so I do need to take a moment to discuss the plot. I want to stress that my placing this so late in the review does not indicate I think it is poor but rather that it is the element that I think will be least decisive in determining whether others will want to read this.
The mystery is competently plotted with several decent suspects to consider. The motive will be clear relatively early but fortunately enough characters share it to sustain the mystery for a while, even if the culprit will be unlikely to surprise many by the moment of the reveal. It is solid enough and reasonably well clued.
I found myself more interested in some of the secondary questions and puzzles structured around this main mystery which include a string of suspicious deaths in Claudia’s own household. Here, once again, the mysteries are solidly plotted – though it does not play entirely fair (one key piece of information is known to a character but not communicated to the reader before the murderer is apprehended). I do appreciated though how well spaced out these developments are, adding an extra layer of interest in the second half of the novel.
While the mysteries are solid enough, the principle attraction for me was the really entertaining main character. It is entirely possible that you may feel differently – particularly if it is important for you to be able to like, empathize with and want the best for the sleuth. If that’s the case this probably won’t be for you. As for me, well – I already have a copy of the next one on its way to me…