'Trade Secrets' returns to ancient Rome with 'Philip Marlowe in a toga'

This is the 17th outing for star sleuth Marcus Corvinus, a tough-talking nobleman in the Rome of the earliest Caesars.

Trade Secrets By David Wishart Severn House 224 pp.

Trade Secrets, the new book by David Wishart, is the 17th murder mystery adventure of his star sleuth, Marcus Corvinus, a tough-talking nobleman in the Rome of the earliest Caesars – indeed, he and his family have just survived the rule of Caligula, whose “last six months had been pretty hairy, for all concerned.” Mild-mannered Claudius has now come to power, but things have hardly calmed down for Corvinus, who continues to have a knack for getting himself involved with dead bodies: in this case, two.

The first is Gaius Tullius, a merchant and importer in a loveless marriage who spends most of his time seducing the wives of other men. He was found stabbed to death near the abandoned shrine of Melobosis in Trigemina Gate Street (by two young people who were in the habit of using the shrine for their “evening bouts of privacy”), and his sister happens to be a member of the same book-and-poetry club as Corvinus's coolly intelligent wife, Perilla. The dead man's sister naturally prevails upon Corvinus to look into the knifing and learn what he can.

The mention of murder is happy news for Marilla, the adopted daughter of Corvinus and Perilla, who's absorbed from Corvinus a nose for the nefarious (“Adopted or not,” he ruefully thinks, “she's a lot like me in many ways: she'd've insisted on the full gory details, as far as I could give them, and she'd've wanted to be involved”). And she soon gets more of it than she expected: She and her husband, in Rome for a visit, are taking in the scenic gardens of the Pollio Library when a man seemingly sleeping on one of the benches nearby turns out to be dead – murdered someplace else and deposited at the library. The dead man, Correlius, was a prosperous merchant from the Roman port of Ostia, and since Gaius Tullius also did business there, Marilla automatically assumes the two murders must be connected.

Corvinus isn't so sure, but he ends up investigating both, in Rome and a day's ride away at Ostia. As he quickly learns that virtually nobody – his wife, his brother-in-law, his business partner, his lovers – is sorry Gaius Tullius is dead (“I was beginning to feel more than a little sorry for Gaius Tullius,” he realizes, “It'd be nice, somewhere along the line, to come across someone who wasn't as happy as not to see him dead”), his list of possible suspects grows quite long, to the point where even the most whodunit-adept reader won't be able to predict some of the plot-twists ahead.

Wishart has fashioned the Corvinus mysteries as pure page-turners, and he isn't shy about loading his story with anachronisms to make the reader more comfortable. His Romans quote “Hell hath no fury” 16 centuries before Congreve coined it, they call each other “smart cookie,” and say things are “beginning to stink to high heaven.”  "Trade Secrets" is full of the kind of slangy dialogue that's prompted more than one critic to refer to Corvinus as “Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in a toga” – and they haven't always meant it as a compliment. But what Chandler wrote about the hard-boiled detective, that “He talks as the man of his age talks – that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, an a contempt for pettiness,” he's describing fairly well the character Wishart has brought to life for so many novels.

"Trade Secrets" just jumps right into telling its story; it does next to nothing about acclimating its readers. People unfamiliar with the rigid class structure in ancient Rome will wonder why any of the suspects in these cases would answer any of our hero's questions in the absence of any legal or police authority, for instance. But Wishart weaves his plot-lines with such speed and assurance (you just know the two murders are connected, but he keeps you guessing as to how) that contextual quibbles are replaced with eager reading. And as usual in this series, some of the best scenes are also, ironically, some of the calmest: Corvinus periodically relaxes over a cup of wine talks out the current facts and theories of the case with Perilla, and these sharp, punchy dialogues always glitter with fun as her unflappable insights continuously save Corvinus from lazy assumptions and hasty conclusions.

The jabs about “Philip Marlowe in a toga” are well taken – this series doesn't give the feeling of historical immersion that's so pronounced in the Roman murder mysteries of Steven Saylor, for instance. But it's no small praise to be likened to Raymond Chandler, and the strengths of the Philip Marlowe novels are everywhere in the Corvinus mysteries: the same dry, digging wit, the same plenitude of very human characters (as opposed to historical paste-boards), the same flair for gritty action-sequences, the same slick, confident readability, and most of all the same hard-won, slightly grubby wisdom. Chandler would have approved.

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