I’m actually not one for historical novels much, though I love history and I especially love Roman history. However, Roman historical novels tend to…over-modernize. For a period of which we have extensive but hardly compete records, many authors decide to be too anachronistic in any number of ways. Sometimes it’s as bad as having the main character be an anti-slavery crusader, which is so historically absurd that you might as well include airplanes, sometimes it’s so subtle as just the wrong words or tone (garnered from some badly, badly taught history classes). Then there’s the “he-he sex” genre that takes on many different skins.
The Marcus Corvinus series by David Wishart has none of these problems. They are not only my favorite Roman historical novels, but they are my favorite mysteries and frequent comfort reads. I can’t recommend these books enough.
Marcus Corvinus is the son of a senator but has eschewed the political ladder himself, making him high class but- mercifully, in his view and often in the political reality of the early imperial period- unimportant amongst the Great and Good. He slums a lot and he’s got one untoward hobby: he investigates murders.
The books are written in first person and make Rome come alive. Marcus is a wise guy, right out of noir in many ways, but Roman through and through. The world and cultures at this time are both recognizable and utterly alien. Slavery is just a fact of life and Marcus’ own slaves are recurring characters.
There are plenty of anachronisms in the way Marcus talks, but they’re fitting and not disruptive. The important historical facts are kept and even made more real by word choice. For instance, instead of ‘toga’ being used to describe, uh, togas, Wishart uses the term ‘mantle’. This prevents a weird cultural thing we moderns have about togas. The Roman togas were upper class dress (the real things limit movement and you can’t put one on yourself) and quite dignified, which our understanding of them these days is not. It’s a nice touch and there are a few such uses of words throughout the books that really help sell the setting.
The novels are divided into smaller mysteries and what Wishart himself calls political books. The smaller mysteries are akin to your normal murder mystery, but Roman. They’re very clever and a lot of fun.
The political books cover real events, or relate to real events. Wishart has Corvinus uncover conspiracies and even involves him in the overthrow of Sejanus. It’s very intriguing. One of the major reasons for this is because, while we have detailed records of what did happen, they’re either pretty dry (court records that seem odd) or very biased (Tacitus et al). We don’t know the details of how the plot to kill Caligula worked, really, or various suspicious things clustered together with no explanation. If there were records of this, that, or the other, they have yet to be found and likely didn’t survive.
Wishart pulls together the pieces in an intriguing way. He always notes in his afterwords why he plotted certain things the way he did, as well as any discrepancies, usually related to timeline. He also notes a number of weird coincidences that keep turning up, ideas he has that he later learns match or relate to something in the historical record.
Another really great thing about this series is that, to my understanding, it sits at over twenty books, each a self-contained story. Impressive output and great if you are looking for a series you can really chew on. I don’t have an exact count, or order, because Wishart’s book deal seems to have him being published earlier in the UK and the numbering gets thrown off. I’m not even sure all of them have been published here in the US. Some of the newer books have a list which you can probably trust. At any rate, start with Ovid, because that’s when Marcus meets his wife, who is awesome.
Wishart has written some other historical fiction as well, but it’s not the same without Marcus’ wise-cracking. I think Coleen McCullough’s style is better suited to chronicling the rise and fall of greats up close and her books are my second favorite Roman historical fiction series (first one here). Marcus Corvinus is a treasure, though, and you should pay the author and read all his books and hope for more and shout with excitement when you get an Amazon alert saying there’s a new one….
Speaking of which, you can kick of the Marcus Corvinus series with Ovid via this Amazon link or wherever his contract has the book sold, wherever that is, I’m not sure, but definitely Amazon.