A book like Bruce Macbain’s The Bull Slayer is a bargain. You get two books for the price of one—a challenging mystery thriller and a well-researched historical novel. Set in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus around AD 109-110, its hero Pliny Secundus is newly arrived to serve as governor. Charged with cleaning up corruption and financial mismanagement in the troubled province, he finds himself not only faced with a hostile local Greek population, but the brutal murder of a major Roman official, a man who may have a hand in the corrupt practices. Things get even more complicated when his much younger wife, Calpurnia, left much on her own in a strange land develops a romantic attachment to good looking young rogue. Combining actual historical characters and situations with fictional people and events, Macbain spins a compelling tale of murder and mayhem that exudes authenticity.
The second in his Pliny Secundus series, Macbain has chosen what might seem to many an unlikely hero. Historically best known for his letters, he is thought of as a steady man with a fine intellect. As described by Macbain, he is a hard worker who pays methodical attention to detail. He is aware that others see him as “a rather plump, rather domesticated, rather fussy man,” but he is more interested in doing his job than he is in worrying about what people think about him. He inspires loyalty in his friends and close associates, but he may at times be too trusting, and his good intentions don’t always work out. In short he is not the stereotypical Roman aristocrat we’ve learned to hate if we’ve been watching something like the Starz’ Spartacus series. He is both more human and more humane.
With a plot involving local malfeasance, a mysterious religious cult, murder, and even a little adultery, and a cast of characters as diverse as a charlatan faith healer, a whore loving historian, an epileptic youth, and a lovely Persian brothel owner, The Bull Slayer is anything but a stuffy journey into ancient history. Indeed, it brings a new life to the ancients. It may well get some of its readers to take a look at Pliny’s Letters or Suetonius’ (who also appears in the book as one of Pliny’s lieutenants) The Twelve Caesars. Some might even move on to a tome like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Macbain writes with authority. He has degrees in Classics and Ancient History and has taught at Vanderbilt and Boston Universities. But he recognizes the inherent difference between academic work and popular fiction. In a Q and A on his website, he points out that it’s harder to write fiction than scholarly studies. “Academic writing is allowed to be dull. With a historical novel you do all the same research and then have to turn it into an interesting story. Also your audience is much wider. You need to give them the background information they need to enjoy the story in its historical context.” In effect, it is the burden of the historical novelist to create an accurate picture of the historical period while at the same time making sure to entertain the reader. He can invent characters and events, but he is obligated to make clear what is fact and what isn’t. “I appreciate it,” he tells us, “when the author appends a note at the end telling me exactly what is true and what is invention.”
Not only does he provide the historical context through historical characters and events, he is adept at describing Greek and Roman social conventions, rituals, and politics. Greek women are not to eat at banquets with strangers. Roman citizens cannot be tortured by the governor. He describes medical procedures like bleeding. He explains the state of knowledge about epilepsy. He describes a Roman burial. He refers to the passage of time using the Roman calendar and explains it in an appendix. He peppers the text with Latin terms, which he also explains in a glossary at the end. Practicing what he preaches, he manages to give his tale the necessary verisimilitude without lecturing or writing down to his audience.
Every once in a while he can get a little cute. At one point he has Suetonius talk about what a good idea it would be to write a story “where the reader doesn’t know the solution until the very end.” “I don’t believe,” he continues, “it’s ever been done before.” Later he has a character come up with the term money laundering—cute, perhaps, but it might be a bit twee for some readers. When you begin thinking about how clever the author is being, it tends to take you out of the novel.
Still, this is a minor point in what is after all a quite entertaining book. Happily we haven’t heard the last of Pliny Secundus, there is the promise of more to come.