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.