Today, rather than reviewing one book, I’m going to talk about the Medicus series of historical mysteries by Ruth Downie, set in the Roman Empire in the second century of the common era. We first meet Gaius Petraius Ruso, a physician (or medicus) from Gaul, when he is assigned to a legion in Britannia. Ruso is a wry, unassuming man who just wants to earn a decent living to help out his family in Gaul, left in debt after his father dies, and to forget his failed marriage to a woman who had far more ambition than he does and regarded him with scorn for not rising faster in his career. He hopes working at a routine institutional job will give him the time he needs to focus on compiling a medical guide that will salvage his finances and reputation—as well as helping other physicians.
Life in Britannia quickly proves more complicated and dangerous than Ruso anticipates. His soft heart leads him to purchase a blonde slave girl with an unpronounceable British name from her abusive master with the intention of saving her severely injured arm. Thus we are introduced to the second main character, quickly rechristened Tilla.
When young women at a local bar near the military outpost start turning up dead, Ruso somehow ends up investigating the crimes. This in turn gives him a reputation as a detective that he dearly wants to disavow but which follows him throughout the course of the series, disrupting his plans to be just a good doctor.
As does Tilla, who evolves from a distrustful housekeeper with no domestic skills to Ruso’s partner in more ways than one. She views every injustice with sharp indignation, and she has a knack for annoying the authorities and going her own headstrong way, further injecting chaos into the life of the man she lives with.
The series meanders to Ruso’s family home in Gaul and even to imperial Rome but always seems to come back to Britannia, touring some of the ancient high spots such as Hadrian’s wall (then under construction) and Aquae Sulis (now known as Bath).
The stories are fast reads, and humor makes up a large part of every book. Downie’s use of eccentric characters to people her world reminds me a bit of Dickens. Some of the most memorable of those characters are recurring. Life in the ancient Roman empire is depicted in vivid but not overwhelming detail. Most importantly, by the time I reached the third or fourth book, I found myself missing Ruso and Tilla between reads. To me, that is always the sign of a good series.
Read the books in order to avoid confusion and to be able to follow the characters’ development:
Persona Non Grata
Prima Facie (a novella, rather than a novel)