Short Review : “The King’s Gambit” by John Maddox Roberts

A mystery novel set in the Roman Republic? I have to admit, although I love mystery and I love history, I bought this book (from Big Sleep Books in St. Louis) with a bit of hesitation.  I was worried about the author’s ability to balance authenticity and accessibility.

On one hand, too readable a tale and the reality of ancient Rome might get glossed over, and I was in no mood to read a book that bullshitted its way through historical reality.

On the other hand, too much real Rome and the typical reader might get lost; having promised my business partner Johnny Sorello a review, I was reading not only for my own entertainment but also for you guys and gals. I was dubious.  The burden of proof was on the author.

Boy, was I surprised.  And impressed.

Let me get my slight gripes out before I turn to the praise, however.  I am an introvert, with a Dunbar Number somewhere in the low forties.  I prefer stories with a few key characters whose relationships are thick and emotionally complex.  Roberts is clearly an extrovert, or writes as one. The book is crammed with characters, and the interaction between them is politically complicated but emotionally very simple.

Granted, this social complexity helps Roberts paint a very thorough picture of Rome during the last days of the Republic, but at times I had a hard time keeping up with the cast.

However, this vast spread of characters had its virtues.  Had Roberts obsessed over the depth of emotionality between his narrator, the patrician up-and-comer Decius Metellus, and the secondary characters, the book’s vision of ancient life would not, could not, have been so rich.  Readers who know little about ancient Rome will love the detail, and readers familiar with the era will catch themselves grinning at the inside references and clever exposition.

Now, a short summary.  Decius is a minor official of Rome, in charge of the seedy Subura neighborhood.  When a murder is uncovered in his district, he investigates.  As you might expect from a murder mystery, the answers he uncovers lead to more questions, another murder, a plot, a conspiracy.  In fact, what begins as a sort of Iron Age hard-boiled detective story soon spins itself into a Grisham-esque tale of international intrigue.  Imagine Dashiell Hammett starting a book and John Grisham finishing it.  Like that.

Personal note as an author: I thoroughly enjoyed Decius’s character development. Like any good character development, it hinged on a consistent character trait—his obstinate drive for duty and justice—while twisting the rest of the protagonist’s personality until he is utterly transformed: Decius pushes his investigation to the point that his fear of death, both social and physical,  erodes to the point of vanishing.  I had thought the historical context might remind me of my own historical fantasy detective, the nameless Observer, but Decius’s gradual awakening to fearlessness in the face of almost certain death was more like Chuck Oliver of On The Head Of A Pin.

Without giving away the ending, Decius comes to a better end than Chuck but, in the truest traditional of hard-boiled mysteries, corruption wins out over all in spite of the best efforts of the detective.  I can’t recommend The King’s Gambit highly enough, both to mystery enthusiasts and the general reader on the hunt for a truly unique read.

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