Book Review: MEMENTO MORI by Ruth Downie

Memento Mori (in stores on March 6, 2018, from Bloomsbury USA) is the eight installment of British crime author Ruth Downie's Medicus mystery series, focusing on the (mis)adventures of the second-century CE doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso. Along with his former slave-turned-freedwoman wife, Tilla, his best friend, Valens, and loyal former clerk, Albanus, Ruso treks across the Roman Empire. All he wants is a peaceful existence, but Ruso manages to find trouble on his doorstep wherever he goes...

I have always been an avid fan of Roman historical mysteries. I regard them as important entrées into loving Roman history for armchair historians-cum-sleuths. Readers might pick up a Roman mystery for the fast-paced adventure and stick around for following volumes because the author constructs engaging characters and makes history accessible. Lindsey Davis's Falco, Rosemary Rowe's Libertus, Steven Saylor's Gordianus, and David Wishart's Corvinus are just a few Roman detectives whose adventures have, to varying degrees, captured my interest over the years.

Ruso, however, has been a polarizing character for me. His initial appearance, in 2008's Medicusmarked Downie as one to watch; Ruso's world-weary yet kindly manner proved to be engaging, his involvement in Roman Britain intriguing. But as the series continued, Ruso became more of an exasperated, "why me?" type, rarely showing any emotion beyond annoyance; his attitudes towards the native Britons grew increasingly superior and condescending. Each book became more of a challenge for me to follow. But things change, as they do in Memento Mori. 

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Memento Mori is a bit of a return to that earlier, livelier Ruso. The book begins with Ruso working hard on the family farm of his British-born wife, Tilla, in the north of modern England. He's annoyed at having to work as a farmer and his in-laws constantly talking about him behind his back, so he's relieved to see his former clerk Albanus suddenly appear. Alas, Albanus has bad news: The wife of Ruso's best friend and fellow medic, Valens, has been murdered...and Valens's father-in-law suspects Valens!

Ruso quickly journeys south to the town of Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) to help out his friends and comes across far more trouble than he'd ever expected. Even though Valens was never truly in love with his wife, Serena, the quiet grief Downie weaves into the stories of those in Serena's life, from her centurion father to her two orphaned children - major characters who are, for some reason, never given names - speaks volumes. All too often, the deaths investigated in mysteries don't deal with the emotional fallout of those people's passing, and the logistical and emotional impact of Serena's death is first and foremost in the minds of those who survived her.

Bath is a town near and dear to my heart, as I have written articles and my senior thesis at Barnard College on the curse tablets found in the sacred spring there. Serena's body is discovered in the sacred spring, and curse tablets come up quiet a bit in Memento Mori, so I liked the idea of setting a tale against a magical backdrop where curses could conceivably play a role in a murder mystery. Downie does indeed bring up the defixiones (one name for the tablets), but doesn't fully delve into what makes them so fascinating as cultural artifacts - their minuscule size, the fact specially-trained scribes probably were available for hire just to work on these - in this story. To be sure, one curse-trained scribe does appear, but he just seems to be an Average Joe scribe, one not trained in magical formulae typical of defixiones or the ability to write super-small.

Ultimately, what makes Memento Mori one of the more remarkable Ruso stories is not the character of Ruso himself, but the supporting cast. Valens's simultaneous confusion, guiltiness, and anguish at the fate of his sons are all combined in a realistic mishmash of emotions  that tugged at my heartstrings. Serena's father, Pertinax, is a well-rounded character; rather than a villain aimed at bringing Valens down, he's a genuinely grief-stricken man who wants what is best for what remains of his family. And the baths and their various attendants allow Downie space to bring in the surrounding community without making them the central focus of the narrative, while a genuinely thrilling action sequence towards the end of the book makes for heart-pounding reading. The author has created a beautiful array of characters and a lovely setting, the perfect foil to Ruso.

You can buy Memento Mori here