Nox Dormienda

Nox Dormienda: a long night for sleeping by Kelli Stanley. If you’re tired of the many “Romans in Britain” historical mysteries, then you may want to pass on this tale set in 83 AD Londinium, but just like there are differences between the television hospital dramas, Grey’s Anatomy and House, there are differences between Ruth Downie’s army doctor, Gaius Ruso, and Stanley’s Arcturus. For one, Arcturus is half-native, half-Roman with no mention of a family back in Rome demanding money and trying to get him married, problems that Ruso struggles to overcome. Second, Arcturus is doctor to the provincial governor, Agricola, based in what passes for a cosmopolitan city in Britannia, whereas Ruso travels with the army in much more rural surroundings. Arcturus must manage the political scene in Londinium and an arrogant head of the vigiles, but doesn’t seem overburdened with medical cases that could distract him from solving problems for his patron.

On a cold December afternoon, Arcturus is visited by a beautiful native woman, Gwyna, who knows of his investigative talents and has come to warn him that a spy has been sent from the Emperor Domitian with a message demanding Agricola’s resignation. When the spy soon turns up murdered and the message vanishes, the good doctor realizes that the governor will be the prime suspect. Unless he can uncover the true killer before the news reaches Rome, Agricola’s life will be forfeit. The investigation takes Arcturus into the city’s brothels and palaces and brings him in contact with rebellious natives and the Druid, Mithran, and Christian cults active in the region at the time. His interest in Gwyna also creates turmoil and stress within his usually peaceful household. In the end, a nasty conspiracy is revealed, but the status quo is changed as well.

The author claims to be introducing a new genre of Roman Noir featuring hard-boiled prose in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Perhaps it was a bit darker with a touch less humor, but I did not sense much change in tone compared to other Roman-based mysteries with scrappy detectives. My biggest problem with the book was the sense that I had missed the opening act. There were frequent references to previous cases and histories between characters that established their relationships, but few details. Perhaps that is part of the Noir style, but I found myself having to confirm that this is Stanley’s debut novel. There is a short story featuring Arcturus that is available online and I think fans would be well-served to read it before attempting the novel. The author also says that “various bits of Latin are peppered throughout the story, in the hope that readers will savor their sounds and maybe decide to learn the language.” To my tastes, the peppering was too much. There is a helpful glossary at the back of the book, but no mention of it in the front, so unless you go searching for it, it remains hidden. However, the story is well-paced and the characters and the mystery are interesting. I enjoy all the stories in this setting and will look forward to the next Arcturus mystery.

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