DEATH IN THE ASHES by Albert Bell

Palo Alto: Perseverance Press, 2013. $15.95 

In his author’s notes, Albert Bell worries about using characters from previous books without giving away the earlier plots. He worries about making this story, DEATH IN THE ASHES, stand alone yet feel connected within the series. He need not have worried. Whether you have read all of Bell’s previous novels or none of them, you will be drawn into this novel and enjoy it on its own merits. 

Gaius Pliny, the nephew and adopted son of the naturalist Pliny the Elder, faces an arranged marriage and pleading his almost mother-in-law’s case in court. After receiving an unexpected and unwelcome reprieve, he receives an urgent summons for help from Manilia Aurelia, whom he rescued from slavery and returned to her rightful family. Her husband, Calpurnius, has been accused of murdering a slave. Gaius Pliny, with Cornelius Tacitus, his good but snarky friend, in tow, heads to the Bay of Naples and its looming volcano, Mt. Vesuvius. Five years after the cataclysmic eruption, much of the land is still desolate and destroyed from the ash. The devastation haunts Gaius Pliny; not only did the eruption kill his uncle, it almost buried him and his mother. Despite his residual fears, Gaius Pliny works to uncovers the mystery surrounding the murder of the slave and Calpurnius’s unwillingness to do much if anything to save himself. Gaius Pliny has quite a number of suspects to question and follow as he unwinds the tangled skein of deceit, divorce, blackmail, and slavery to find the real villain, who teaches Gaius Pliny a thing or two about cold, calculating evil. If Mt. Vesuvius is not enough to cause trepidation--it forcefully reminds all of its existence--then the wrath of the princeps, Domitian, certainly is.

On a historical mystery panel at Bouchercon in Albany, New York this year, Albert Bell said he saw the historical Gaius Pliny as a humane man, but that his acceptance of slavery formed a bit of a disconnect. Bell explores that disconnect with a deft, even moving, touch by showing us both Gaius Pliny’s humanity and his awakening to some unpleasant truths about the realities of Roman slavery.  

Amicitia, friendship, is one of the great human virtues, it creates enduring bonds of love and duty, and it is one of the underlying themes of this novel. When Aurelia asks for his help, Gaius Pliny does not hesitate to come to her aid, to do all that he can to free Calpurnius, and to accept her unborn child, if it be a girl, as his future wife. Likewise, he does not have to ask Tacitus to join him in this quest. Tacitus volunteers, when he says-- 

“We can get there faster if we go by ship.”

“We?”

“Of course. If nothing else, I want to see what Vesuvius did.” (38)

Tacitus may tease, but he supports his friend, acting as Gaius Pliny’s sounding board. More important, he is also politically above reproach in the eyes of an information source because he is the son-in-law of Julius Agricola. When Tacitus is badly wounded in an ambush, Gaius Pliny suffers guilt and anguish. Forced to trust a potential suspect, an arrogant Nubian slave, who has shown herself able and willing to kill, to heal Tacitus,  Gaius Pliny shows palpable relief when Tacitus recovers.

The principal theme of the novel is Roman slavery. It was a more fluid system than that of the Atlantic or the Indian Oceans. Roman masters manumitted their slaves more easily and more frequently than was permitted in the Atlantic world where the Codes Noirs made manumission nearly impossible. Roman slavery was not based on race. Slavery, however, remains slavery for all the differences in the systems with violence at its core. A slave exists at the whim of a master who could beat, sell, or even kill the slave. 

Bell makes us, the readers, feel that painful, servile reality through Gaius Pliny’s love for his slave, Aurora. His disquietude over her makes him uncomfortably aware of the status of slaves and his proper relationship and obligations toward them. The Nubian slave is a prize of war, yet she is loyal to her master. Aurelia not only has moved from slave to free but from slave to noble and has married well. Yet, another slave has his woman sold away from him, breaking his heart. Gaius Pliny seeks the female slave and later assists in freeing the man. In the end, his humanity is directed toward the individual slave; he does not question slavery as an institution or as the basis of the Roman agricultural economy.

Although the beginning moves rather slowly, DEATH IN THE ASHES becomes a compelling mystery that is thoroughly grounded in its time and place. To enrich our understanding of the period, Bell provides both a glossary of Latin terms and cast of characters. These are excellent aides, but they are not a necessity. The story stands tall on its own.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com