In classic mystery form, the novel opens with a dead body. But for the first third it reads more like a literary novel and even the rest of the book is driven, not so much by suspects, investigation, danger relating to the crime, but by the character of the characters. I couldn’t put it down. If Downie can sustain the quality of writing throughout the series, I will be seriously impressed.
Medicus is about a doctor in ancient Britain under the occupation of the Romans. Gaius Petreius Ruso is an army doctor, recently divorced, broke and burdened by financial obligations to his extended family, a guy whose career is held back by his honesty and integrity. He is likable and believable because he is also a man of his times, with prejudices and blind spots. His exposure to a new country, its inhabitants, and the culture of occupation is a learning experience for him.
So is Tilla, the young British slave whom he buys in order to nurse back to health, a feisty herbalist and midwife who would gladly bite the hand that feeds her if it gets her back to her people and the British rebellion. To her dismay, the hand belongs to a man who is much more sympathetic than she expects.
The dead body is that of a young prostitute, which raises issues that are universal in time as well as place, about sex, slavery, armies, and freedom. Although the novel takes place in ancient Britain, it is typical of the latest wave of historical novels, which give a contemporary feel to language and setting and make free with some of the facts.
It worked well for this book and I was completely engaged, even though normally I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, because I was rooting for Gaius and Tilla. Highly recommended. Page 17:
Ahead of him, a chorus of excited voices rose in the street. He recognized the fat man, still shouting orders in a thick Gallic accent. The female who had collapsed had now attracted a sizable crowd. They seemed to be carrying her to the fountain. Ruso tossed the last fragments of cake to a passing dog and strode on in the direction of the amphitheater. It was nothing to do with him. He was not, at this moment, a doctor. He was a private citizen in need of some bath oil…
There was a sudden gasp from around the fountain. Someone cried. “Ugh! Look at that.”
A child was pawing at her mother’s arm, demanding, “What is it? I can’t see! Tell me what it is!”
Russo hesitated, came to a halt, and promised himself it would only be a quick look.