I think John Maddox Roberts’ ancient Rome series featuring Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger gets better and better with each novel. I devoured Nobody Loves a Centurion (SPQR VI) in very few sittings. Not only was it an excellent mystery, it had a sense of humor as well.
Decius reluctantly reports for his duty in the armed services with Caesar in Gaul. His political rival has come into power, it’s best he leave the city. He shows up at camp in full military regalia, much to the amusement of his colleagues. Then he manages to anger one of the most powerful men in the army, Centurion Titus Vinius, who is cruel to the men in his century. One of the unfortunate young men is a client of Decius’ and the senator protests his ill-treatment. Soon every soldier in the camp has bet odds on who will come out on top, Titus or Decius. The battle is decided when Titus is found murdered outside of camp and wearing slave’s clothing.
Caesar puts Decius in charge of finding the centurion’s murderer or he will put the entire century to death, including Decius’ client. To his horror, Decius finds many of the soldiers don’t want him to discover the truth behind Vinius’ death, just let the men die. It’s all part of war. But Decius won’t let that happen. He feels bound to save his client from a slow, excruciating death.
Confounding the mystery are the murdered centurion’s two German slaves, a small, dwarfish man named Molon and Freda, a stunningly, beautiful woman who has the tongues of every man in camp hanging to the ground when she passes. When Caesar awards the two slaves to Decius, it only adds to the bad feelings against him.
Decius manages to focus on the mystery despite the beautiful slave and nightly skirmishes with the Gauls. But he is again called out in the middle of the night to another bizarre discovery. Three Druid priests have been hung in the forest. Decius knows the two incidents are related but he has no idea how.
Despite his goofy entrance and actions after his arrival, Decius exhibits bravery and a tenacious curiosity to find out the truth and save his friend. As usual, the final solution has serious consequences for him but he perseveres and confronts someone who could become a dangerous enemy.
As with all his ancient Rome stories, Roberts includes a glossary of the numerous terms that are obsolete or unknown. Sometimes it gets frustrating to have to flip to the back of the book to look up a word, but it also helps bring ancient Roman culture and lifestyles to vivid life. It helps the reader identify more with Decius and his countrymen.
In this story, Roberts shows off his knowledge of ancient Gaul and German history as well as Italian. He makes numerous references to their lifestyle, where the two cultures were settled, the advancement of their territories and their gods.
Decius maintains his sense of humor even outside of Rome, which is as dangerous as being in the middle of Gaul territory, now France. Roberts keeps a healthy pace mixing humor and action, and showing a brave side of Decius while at the same time, Roberts likes beating up on him. I think that’s why I like Decius so much. He has the right amount of sarcasm and wit, that endears him to people and at the same time, annoys the hell out of them, too.
It’s novels like Nobody Loves a Centurion that bring me back for more.