Mystery Review: SPQR I: The King's Gambit


SPQR I: The King’s Gambit

by John Maddox Roberts
Thomas Dunne Books – 14.95

I went to the bookstore specifically looking for John Maddox Robert’s SPQR novels, and bought the first two volumes. I was really looking forward to reading them. They are, after all, Edgar-nominated mysteries. Plus, they’re set in ancient Rome, which is what hooked me.

Unfortunately, the first volume, The King’s Gambit, was a disappointment for me.

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is a high-born but low-ranking official with a murder to investigate. And although he does his duty admirably, a lot of people don’t appreciate it — people in power like senators, gang leaders and even the Consuls themselves. One murder quickly turns to two, and then to three, and then the lives of hundreds of slaves depend upon Decius getting to the truth.

My problem with The King’s Gambit was mostly with Decius, the rather lacklustre protagonist. He is a man without the attachments that might have made him interesting. He is unmarried at about 28 or so, has no mother and an indifferent father. He apparently has no close friends, and no ladylove. His father seems uninterested in making a political alliance by having Decius marry someone. He is a completely empty slate.

This is a huge disappointment for me. There is so much drama infused in daily Roman life that Mr. Roberts failed to take advantage of. Decius’s father has complete legal control of him, and could have ordered him to marry someone who made his life miserable. Or, he could have been a widower, grieving for his lost wife. He could have been in love with a slave. But no. His heart seemed completely unattached. Oh, except for Claudia, with whom he carries a brief fling. But he walks away without any sort of attachment there, either. It was just a drug-hazed romp.

The mystery itself was serviceable with one big problem: Decius has no reason to care. He stubbornly continues the investigation, making political enemy after political enemy, with no clear reason why he is bothering other than a vague sense of justice. Then, mercifully, well into the second half of the book, the stakes rise when a man with a vast number of slaves is murdered, and they all face crucifixion if the killer is not found. Now that’s more like it!

The ending is fine and it all wraps up well. Decius has finally found a friend, or at least, a sidekick. And he is being kicked out of Rome for a while to get out of the notice of all the political enemies he accumulated.

It took me months to read this. I have the second book, The Catiline Conspiracy, which I’ll probably read eventually just to see if it gets any better. This is a vastly popular series with thirteen or so volumes, so I’m thinking it must.

However, on the strength of this first volume, I really can’t recommend it at all. The murder is uninteresting, the characters are flat and the relationships are tepid. The world-building and evident research is pretty good, as is the taste of everyday Roman life. But I already have a book on Roman social history, and I didn’t need another.

Mervi recently read this novel as well, and had a different impression.

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13 thoughts on “Mystery Review: SPQR I: The King's Gambit

  1. Chicory

    What does SPQR stand for?

  2. Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and the People of Rome”). It was an official signature by the senate, which was the ruling body. Technically.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SPQR

  3. Tia,

    If you like mysteries set in Ancient Rome, you might try the Marcus Falco books by Lindsey Davis. I read a couple a long time ago and enjoyed them.

  4. Chicory

    Thanks for explaining the acronym. ๐Ÿ™‚ I haven’t strayed much outside the Victorian era for historic mysteries, but the idea is interesting. I think it would be really cool if someone (who wasn’t me, obviously) wrote a series of Reformation mysteries. I’m not sure how someone would handle that without getting preachy, but then, the Brother Cadfael books involve the Church and manage to be mainstream fiction, so I’d think it was possible. The time of the Reformation was so bloody and had (in my admittedly biased mind) such a witch-hunt feel to it that it seems a natural setting for murder mysteries. That’s a really long aside, but I’m curious: what eras would you all just love to see mysteries set in? (I’d also dearly love to find Hittite mysteries. That would be too awesome.)

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Ooh . . . or a Phoenician mystery. It would be interesting (and probably horrific) to see how they served up justice back then.

  5. Just the other day at Borders I saw a new mystery by Anne Perry called The Sheen on the Silk, and I’ve got my eye on it for when it comes out in paperback and I can afford it. It’s set in Byzantium in the 1200’s. I just hope she gets the religion part right, though, since it’s a huge part of what Byzantium was. Eastern Christianity can be tough for westerners to portray accurately and sympathetically.

    A historical mystery has the biggest chance of appealing to me if it’s set before about 1600 AD. After that I’m just not as interested, although if the setting were Asia, I might be.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I used to think that I would only enjoy historical fiction set in the Renaissance or before, but lately I have been hooked by series set in times I never thought I would be interested in: the Depression (Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs) and the early 1900’s (Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mysteries). So now I’m open to any time period.

      I used to read the heck out of John Jakes, which are set all throughout American history.

      1. I used to be that way, too, about only reading historical fiction set in the Renaissance or before. I think it’s because all of the old legends and myths fascinated me so much that I just wanted to immerse myself in them. But there’s this slowly building trend where the old stories are reinvented in new, fresh settings and cultures, and now I’m much more open to other historical tales.

        I think another thing that opened my mind to historicals set post-Rensaissance has been my renewed interest in American history. I loved it as a kid (I’ve always been a history buff, even from a tender age), but when I really started getting into fantasy in junior high/high school, my interests shifted toward English history. Only recently have I rediscovered just how fascinating American history is, which has made me suddenly interested in historical novels in American settings. And that in turn has made me realize just how much I was missing before. So I try not to rule anything out.

        1. When I was a young teenager I used to be really into American history too, especially the revolutionary period. But since then I’ve lost interest, to the extent that I probably wouldn’t start an historical novel set in the US unless it came very highly recommended.

          I’m not completely closed to post-1600 stories. The writer just has to work harder to pull me in. ๐Ÿ™‚

          1. I’ve been fond of the fronteir era in US history since I discovered the Little House books as a girl. {Smile}

            For me, some eras and cultures just work better than others. {Smile}

            Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

          2. I have fond memories of the Little House books, too. I had the whole set. ๐Ÿ™‚

          3. I still have all the Little House books Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote. I enjoyed them quite a bit when I re-read them all a few years ago. {SMILE}

            Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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