Palo Alto and McKinleyville: Perseverance Press, 2020. $15.95.

When I receive a new Albert Bell novel, I know that I am in experienced hands. I enjoy the focused storytelling and the smooth writing style topped with a dry wit. A Classical historian, Bell provides serious analysis of the workings and issues of Roman society in the early empire. It underlays a good mystery that provides sufficient clues for me to solve it, yet enough misdirection for me miss the perpetrator. In this new outing, however, Bell departs from his normal modus operandi and gives us a past-present story that, for me, does not quite fulfill its promise.

The novel opens with a frantic journey. Gaius Plinius Secundus rushes to catch up Cornelius Tacitus, who has headed for Lugdunum (Lyons). Whilst Gaius Plinius’ mother holds quite legitimate fears for her son’s safety, he holds to the idea ‘that a friend in need is a friend indeed.’ Gaius and his small, but armed, party catch up Tacitus, which is a lucky stroke given the distances and the vagaries of travel. Along the way, they are attacked by Gauls, and Aurora kills a man. One of Tacitus’ slaves, Charimus, alerts Gaius and Aurora that the dead man is the son of a local chief. The chief will want vengeance. How does Charimus know this? And how did the Gauls react to him? Their deference to Charimus incites Aurora’s immediate and deep distrust.

Once they have joined with Tacitus in Genua (Genoa), they have a choice to make. Do they take the longer, but safer, route along the coast—the Via Julia—or the shorter, but more dangerous Via Postumia, which cuts through the Alps? They opt for the latter. (This exchange is both ancient and modern, mundane and hilarious. Gaius and Tacitus sound like me deciding to take I-84 to I-81 to US 15 as the fastest route to Frederick, Maryland.)

As they head north, they are pursued by the Gauls whom Gaius and Aurora encountered earlier. Lucius Nonius Torquatus then joins them. He possesses something that Gaius Plinius and Cornelius Tacitus can never hope to have, so long as Domitian is emperor (67)—an imperial pass that allows him to commandeer whatever he needs along his journey, be it rooms at an inn or the services of Roman soldiers. Torquatus claims his cousin is a provincial governor to whom Domitian wished documents delivered. He is an unpleasant figure, and Gaius is both wary and disquieted.

Their chosen route takes them through a tiny Roman village that Gaius and Aurora remember from ten years earlier. Here, they conducted their first murder investigation under the auctoritas of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, but did not solve it. Now, Gaius and his party come into this tiny village again, they stay at the very same inn, and they are confronted, again, with the unsolved murder. The cast of suspects, like the village itself, remains largely unchanged, and no, they are not at all happy to see Gaius and Aurora again. When heavy snowfall and avalanches trap them in the inn, tensions rise as the temperature drops.

This novel has several strengths—its depiction of travel, something we moderns take for granted, but which was arduous and lengthy for the Romans, and the apparently static nature of village life, which teems below the surface with secrets and seething animosities. But the chosen structure, two separate plot lines in two separate times, AD 87 and 77 respectively, robs the novel of vitality. The genuine suspense created by the pursuing Gauls vanishes when Gaius and Aurora tell the story of their earlier investigation in a long, awkward series of flashbacks. Once they escape the inn, the narrative picks up the Gauls again, but the conclusion to this story line feels rushed and not particularly satisfying.

(Full confession—I dislike flashbacks and consider them an overused device. An excess of them can be confusing, tho’ not generally so here. The flashbacks were my overriding complaint against the latest adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN.) 

I wish Bell had taken the time to open up the Gaulish narrative, to let it breathe, and to explore further the nature of Roman imperialism—who wins, who loses, who comes to terms, and who accommodates and prospers. Imperialism is far more complicated that its modern knee-jerk detractors would like us to think. Certainly, Bell touches upon conquest and the conquered in his previous novel with regard to the Jews, a much more recent addition to the Empire. The Gauls were brought under Roman control in a more piecemeal fashion and over a longer period of time. After all, Gaul was divided into three parts, Transalpine Gaul being conquered last, by Julius Caesar. What did that longer transition mean for the Gauls? What did they lose? What did they gain? The villains in this novel are unreconstructed Gauls, ones who will never surrender to Rome. Many others have—either by slavery or by acculturation and choice. In the relationship between Tacitus and Charimus, the reader only gets a glimpse of the conflicts within that imperial dynamic. The Gallic narrative is intriguing, but ends feeling like a missed opportunity.

Even with these caveats, I found the novel to be pleasurable and readable. If I did not find this outing of Gaius Plinius Secundus as absorbing as previous ones, it still held my attention and was diverting, especially in its getting out of Rome itself. Sometimes, even Gaius Plinius Secundus needs a change of scenery. I am sure he would prefer it to be less daunting.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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