FORTUNE’S FOOL by Albert Bell

Palo Alto and McKinleyville: Perseverance Press, 2017. $15.95.

Within and under an intricately plotted murder mystery is a novel that delves into the nature of power, particularly domestic power, and how it can (and will) corrupt if the holder does not restrain him/herself. In this stance, the novel itself adheres to Gaius Plinius Secudnus's own philosophy, Stoicism. While its origins are Greek, Stoicism was widely adopted within the Roman world. It concerns itself with duty and obligation, but also restraint and mindfulness. All of these elements are present within Pliny the Younger, who is pulled in multiple emotional directions as he tries to fulfill all of his obligations--to his mother, to his wife, to his lover, to his familia, even to the dead man he finds in immured in his villa.

Duty opens the novel as Pliny, along with much of his familia plus Cornelius Tacitus and his wife, Julia, travel to the least of Pliny's estates. He's neglected this poor estate along the shores of Lake Comum for years. It shows in its rather dilapidated state. His wife Livia and her mother follow a day or two later. Pliny's mother is ill and fragile whilst his slave-lover, Aurora, whom he treats as a near equal, must be married off at the demand of his wife. Which duty is most important? 

He starts by marrying Aurora to another slave, Felix. This cover does not satisfy the domineering and perpetually antagonist Livia. Neither does the meanness of the villa. To placate his wife, part of whose distress derives from the fact her father drown in the lake twenty years before, Pliny begins an expansion of the villa, only to discover a skeleton in one wall. Who was this man? How did he come to be inside a wall of Pliny's father's home? Pliny is guiltily relieved to have a mystery to solve--until his investigation results in uncovering a ring of pederasts and the sordid dealings of his family, including his father, his uncle, and an unacknowledged bastard cousin. It results in the kidnapping of Livia. As much as he loathes her, he is duty-bound to rescue her. So doing results in arson and more murder. Someone is quite determined to keep secrets--even to the point of murdering Pliny himself.

The power relationships in this novel within and without the household are fascinating. They also determine the course of this mystery and provide a window on those relationships within the Roman world. 

The paterfamilias, the oldest, free male, was at the pinnacle of the familia, the whole household. He held the power of life and death over the familia, accepted or rejected children. Bastards might or might not be recognized; thus, Pliny the Elder was perfectly within in his rights not to acknowledge his by his slave-lover. (This bitter irony is not lost on Pliny the Younger.) The paterfamilias married children to suit family, not individual, needs. He could sell children into slavery—as Aurora and her mother were sold by her father. He could punish a family member, free or slave, in whatever fashion he deemed appropriate, even putting a family member to death. 

Naturally, the slaves, were at the bottom of the power pyramid, numerous but essentially powerless. Those without protection of a patron within the familia, or those without skill, or children could be in serious danger even in a familia headed by someone as mindful and benevolent as Pliny. He understands the checks on his power--to be remembered fondly, to be taken care of in his old age, to not make the gods angry--but not all masters did. Debt dictated Aurora’s own sale, painful enough, but the fate of the slave Felix, who was castrated by a former master before being sold, is a brutal reminder of this household power. Pliny’s own decision to order Aurora’s marriage to Felix is no less an exercise of power and circumspection.

The separation, if not the isolation, of women within the household was stark. At the pinnacle of the female world was the materfamilias--in this case, Pliny's mother and Livia's mother. They are the two oldest free women in Pliny's household. Cousins, they have charge of this interior world. Aurora's point of view has been expanded to show this female world of which Pliny himself would only have an incomplete view. (It also helps develop Aurora's character and her place as Pliny's sleuthing partner.) Class and status complicate Aurora's growing friendship with Julia. She is a slave; Julia, as the daughter of Agricola and the wife of Tacitus is both free and noble. “I was almost offended by her [Julia’s] request, until I reminded myself that weren’t really friends, no matter how friendly we might have been over the last few days. I was a slave, who could be ordered to do anything Julia wanted” (94). In public, they must keep to their places, yet privately, they behave as friends, discussing things such as pregnancy, love, murder, and Livia. Julia even stands up for Aurora at the wedding.

Unlike Julia, Livia is in a terrible position. She's been married, twice, to men she does not, cannot love, or even like. With Pliny, she's wife in name only, largely due to her abrasive and hostile nature. There will be no children, which diminishes her and her position within the family. She can only vent her resentment so much on Pliny before he refuses to deal with her. In truth, she should not express any of it to him because as a wife, she must grin and bear whatever humiliations he heaps upon her—as her mother and his mother have done before her. Instead, she targets those below her in station such as artisans, freedmen, and slaves, like Aurora. Livia’s hatred is genuine and potentially fatal. Aurora takes what steps she can to avoid her master's wife. All of this said, Livia does verge on being a caricature, with some heavy-handed dialogue between Pliny and Tacitus concerning her that suggests broad Roman comedy tropes.

This novel is packed with it all--compelling, complex plotting, keen historical observation, painful irony and pathos, and broad Roman humor. All in all, FORTUNE'S FOOL is a superb entry into the continuing adventures of Gaius Plinius Secundus.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst