Skip to main content

Vita Brevis: A Gaius Ruso Mystery


Vita Brevis: A Gaius Ruso Mystery

Ruth Downie has served up VITA BREVIS, the latest adventure of crime-solving ancient Roman doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso. In the past, what has distinguished Ruso from similar sleuths such as Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder or Lindsey Davis’ Falco has been his hapless misadventures; Ruso’s circumstances usually leave the reader in stitches. VITA BREVIS, however, makes Ruso out as more of a sad sack than the comic detective we’ve come to know and love.

As the novel opens, Ruso, his wife, Tilla, and their baby daughter are now living in Rome. In previous books, they’ve resided in Britain, Tilla’s home, and Gaul, where Ruso grew up. Now, on the recommendation of Ruso’s patron Publius Accius, they’ve come to the Eternal City itself for a job opportunity that Ruso isn’t actually sure exists. Frustrated professionally, Ruso comes across as petulant and grouchy (except for when he rightfully complains about the conditions of his vile apartment) when life in Rome isn’t up to his standards.

"Readers will want to wander the city alongside Ruso, venturing up and down the Seven Hills to examine every cranny of bars and brothels."

After a while of nagging his patron for a job, Ruso is granted his wish: He’s taking over Doctor Kleitos’ private practice --- and his clean apartment. Everything seems to be settling into place until Ruso receives a letter from Kleitos, warning him to beware whom he trusts, and a barrel with a body inside it appears on his doorstep. Suddenly, reserved Ruso’s affairs are spiraling out of control once again, complete with a squalling infant, too many slaves, and vexing neighbors.

VITA BREVIS suffers from a lack of focus on what should be the central storyline --- the mystery --- and instead concentrates on Ruso’s surfeit of personal problems. The body in a barrel idea begins what could be a compelling story, but the mystery plot is mired by Ruso’s domestic woes. If he and Tilla had a moment of happiness, at least this misdirection would be more appealing.

Downie manages to rescue the novel by bringing the setting to vivid life. Her version of Rome in 123 A.D. under the reign of Emperor Hadrian (he of the famous wall in Britain) is a hodgepodge of congested traffic, unappealing smells, and an occasional glimpse of green spaces. Readers will want to wander the city alongside Ruso, venturing up and down the Seven Hills to examine every cranny of bars and brothels. Downie also lets her secondary characters shine; Ruso’s neighbors and a night watch doctor, in particular, steal the show.

Reviewed by Carly Silver on August 5, 2016

Vita Brevis: A Gaius Ruso Mystery
by Ruth Downie