Review: Catalina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor


The third in Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa novels featuring Gordianus the Finder. Gordianus, disillusioned by the corruption of Rome circa 63 B.C., has fled the city with his family to live on a farm in the Etruscan countryside. But this bucolic life is disrupted by the machinations and murderous plots of two politicians: Roman consul Cicero, Gordianus’s longtime patron, and populist senator Catilina, Cicero’s political rival and a candidate to replace him in the annual elections for consul. Claiming that Catilina plans an uprising if he loses the race, Cicero asks Gordianus to keep a watchful eye on the radical. Although he distrusts both men, Gordianus is forced into the center of the power struggle when his six-year-old daughter Diana finds a headless corpse in their stable. Shrewdly depicting deadly political maneuverings, this addictive mystery also displays the author’s firm grasp of history and human character.

My Review

Another fascinating Gordianus episode, this time in the country, where he has done his best to get away from it all. Having inherited a farm from an old friend Lucius Claudius, he was living the life of retirement, only mildly annoyed by his neighbors—all Claudians—who bitterly resented his acquisition of what they regarded as rightfully their own. But life as a farmer was not as congenial as he anticipated; crop failure, water shortage, headless corpse in the barn. Oops! Where did that come from? How much did it have to do with the unwelcome advances of Cicero and his messenger Marcus Caelius, trying to persuade Gordianus to play host to the troublesome Catalina:

“This is your way of convincing me to help you? I tell you I want no danger to this house and you tell me stories of assassination and civil war?”
“All of which can be prevented, if we work together.”
Why—in spite of all my protests, my clearly reasoned judgment, all the resolutions and promises I had made to myself, the great daily satisfaction I took in turning my back on the madness of the city—why in that moment did I experience a shiver of excitement?

Although he wanted nothing to do with Catalina, the headless body gave him an argument he couldn’t refuse. But who was working for whom? What was Cicero up to? Would Catalina drag him into an insurrection? Everyone seemed to have an agenda and Gordianus was out of practice. And to add to his confusion, Catalina was hard to dislike. Even more so, young Meto was completely won over, and the more Gordianus resisted the politics, the more Meto gave him the cold shoulder. (Meto was a teenager, after all!) The story is full of twists and turns, and it’s up to the reader to decide whether Catalina was a traitor, or was he a victim of Cicero’s propaganda. Kept me going until the end.


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