Breezing through Roman ruins

Excavations at Uriconium (Wroxeter) by Francis Bedford (photo: public domain)
Excavations at Uriconium by Francis Bedford (photo of hypocaust and Old Work public domain)

Ellis Peters City of Gold and Shadows Heron Books 1982 (1973)

Take an assortment of singular characters, one missing person and a generous helping of archaeology; when you blend them together you’ll likely get something like this, a whodunit by Ellis Peters set in her favourite area — the Welsh Marches — and based on the ruins of a fictional Roman city that is rather reminiscent of Wroxeter in Shropshire. Though I’ve not knowingly read any of her work before (certainly before I was aware that this was the twelfth in a series) I wasn’t disappointed in this offering — what would be known in North America as a cozy mystery — especially as it worked very well as a standalone novel.

An essential aspect of a ‘cozy’ is that it often features a strong, intelligent woman as amateur sleuth; and here it is Charlotte Rossignol. Half-French, a classical musician at what one hopes is the start of a successful career, she is drawn by the concerns that a lawyer (“like a very well-turned-out troll from under some Scandinavian mountain”) has over her missing archaeologist uncle, Alan Morris. Visiting the subject of his latest (or last?) monograph, the ruins of Aurae Phiala near Moulden village in Midshire, she makes the acquaintance of a number of very distinctive characters, any of whom could be responsible for some of the odd incidents that start to occur. Who is Gus Hambro, and why is he behaving suspiciously? What is schoolboy Gerry Boden up to? What’s the nature of the relationship between site custodian Steve Paviour and his young wife Lesley? Is gardener Orlando Benyon all that he seems to be? What does graduate student Bill Lawrence know? How does DCI George Felse deal with the strange events that closely follow one another? And do we ever find out what happened to Charlotte’s missing uncle?

From my little experience of archaeology and my zilch experience of forensic police work I was impressed with the author’s confident handling of procedures and technical terms, especially the historical details: even a sketch map of Aurae Phiala (the name means something like “bowl of the breeze”, no doubt with a pun on aurum, Latin for ‘gold’, in the book’s title) appears as a frontispiece. This plan actually shows part of the public baths that were so central to Roman urban life but, unfortunately, the Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano could not be less apt as the potential body count rises, leaving this zephyr-blessed place an unhealthy spot.

Ribchester parade helmet (credit: Preston Historical Society)
Ribchester parade helmet (credit: Preston Historical Society)

I like the little details that suggest other stories may possibly be being referenced. For example, are we to see in the largely covered over hypocaust system under the site’s baths a hint of Knossos in Crete, with a groundplan that some see as the inspiration for the legend of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur in the labyrinth? And the Roman cavalry parade helmet that puts in an appearance — is the well-read author slyly hinting at the supernaturally large helmet that initiates the action in Walpole’s classic Gothic tale The Castle of Otranto?

Cozies and other mystery novels that hark back to the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction are rarely thought of as great literature, and City of Gold and Shadows has no pretentions in that direction. But there is a little more to it than would merely appeal to crossword solvers. There are some credible characters with interesting motivations (such as George Felse, who reappears in other titles in this series); there is a sense of place; and dialogue, descriptions and plotting are all beautifully done. I can see now why Ellis Peters is well regarded.

Wroxeter Roman city 19th-century print
Wroxeter Roman city 19th-century print
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3 thoughts on “Breezing through Roman ruins

  1. It looks interesting. I would like to visit a place called Wroxeter (wrong Exeter?) considering that I lived for a while near Cirencester in UK, in a area full of Roman ruins. This book seems worth giving it a try.

    1. Novels in which the writer gets details of a discipline such as archaeology largely right are in my limited experience rare, Stephen — witness the execrable Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. So it’s nice to come across a largely believable place-set scenario like this. Though I’ve neither read (nor watched the TV adaptations of) the Cadfael series by this author it’s clear she was comfortable with historical matters.

      Wroxeter as ‘wrong Exeter’ — a nice notion!

  2. Pingback: Literally challenged: update | calmgrove

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