A noir thriller with the added twist of being set in Roman times – in the ancient English spa town of Bath.
About: Arcturus is the physician and sometime investigator for Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia. Sick of war, and with a beautiful but ailing wife, he is persuaded to take a break at the fashionable health resort of Aquae Sulis (Bath) – hopeful that the natural hot springs will help to rejuvenate both his wife and their marriage. But this is to be no holiday. No sooner have they arrived in Aquae Sulis than a dead body is found in the sacred spring. The man was a curse maker and was strangled before being dumped in the water.
Arcturus is asked to investigate the murder by the town council, but it soon turns out that neither he nor his investigation is welcomed by the local leaders. The more he digs, the more dirt he finds, and the number of bodies starts to mount up. Soon a local temple priest is murdered, and after that a necromancer. Then it becomes apparent that there were some suspicious deaths before Arcturus arrived in town. The whole town seems to be defiled and corrupt, and it soon becomes clear that both Arcturus and his wife are themselves in great danger.
If there is a silver lining in the cloud, it is that a tragedy brings Arcturus and his wife much closer together. Also, she proves to be a capable assistant and she helps him to start unraveling the clues. Feeling sullied by the corruption, he becomes ever more determined to uncover the truths.
John’s Thoughts: Shellie and I visited Bath last year and it is a wonderful place. A lot of tasteful renovation work has been carried out on the old Roman baths themselves and the surrounding museum is absolutely fascinating. Combine that with my love of a good historical novel, and this book looked like a winner.
There were indeed a lot of things about the book that I enjoyed, but there were also some things that I had a bit of a hard time with. On the credit side Stanley clearly has a wealth of knowledge and does a really good job of recreating an old Roman town and society – warts and all. In fact it’s the many warts that make the place interesting and believable. The Romans might have created one of the greatest civilizations, but there was absolutely no shortage of squalor and you get a good sense of what it might have been like for regular folks. There are also some nice quirky characters in the book, and the story zips along at a good pace.
On the debit side, I really struggled with some of the language. It’s a bit odd really – Stanley works hard to use Roman names and words and she is clearly striving for authenticity, but then bits of American keep on cropping up. For example, I lost count of the number of “godamns” and each time the word really jarred with me. I also came to the conclusion that while I like good historic novels, “noir” is a genre that I often struggle with. I think it’s because the plots tend to become so twisted and intestinal that either they are unbelievable or I give up on trying to make sense of it all and just skim along the surface.
Anyhow, despite the drawbacks I did enjoy the read, and I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in historic novels, Rome or noir. I’d rate the book 3 stars.
Now for a vicarious trip to ~ Bath, England.
Last year on our most recent visit to England we took a side trip to Bath, as mentioned by John in his review. It was wonderful!
An ancient town which dates back to pre-historic times, it was a sacred place that contains the only “hot spring” in England. Now it’s a small city with every modern convenience, many set within some very old buildings. The low lying areas of the city were once a huge lake/marsh (picture the Lady of the Lake’s hand rising up to grasp King Arthur’s sword through its misty/steamy waters and one can almost believe the myth) which has since evolved into residences, restaurants, and shopping areas.
During the Roman invasion of England the spring was taken over and a formal Roman bath house and temple were created. Interestingly they combined both the British and Roman goddesses honored by the spring into one.
What you see above is the renovated remnants of the bath house located on top of the water source. Over the centuries the ancient building was buried and forgotten by the local population. It is only in the past 100 years that it has been renovated by archeologists creating this incredible museum.
We were pleasantly surprised about the self-guided tour; we had envisioned it as only the bath house that you see above, but once inside we had the pleasure of walking beneath the building to view the excavations and the steam rooms, as well as daily paraphernalia. Below you can see the yellow sulfur remnants on the stone and the red from the iron as the steam floats up (from the spring source) to the left and the water ducts which supply the baths to the right.
Pictured below are a figure which was carved almost two thousand years ago that was found in the ruins, and a bronze/gold head of a Roman goddess. But most important to the story are the hammered bronze pieces with writing that were used to send curses requesting revenge or various types of retribution (sadly we did not get pictures of these). Translated, these curses are quite human, sometimes mundane, sometimes violent, and tell of a story that is very similar to human behaviors today. These provide the theme for the book and its title – The Curse-Maker. Most Romans could not read or write so a literate “curse–writer” was needed to scribe them.
The town of Bath is extremely lovely. Below left you can see the very old hotel where we stayed, with its rounded walls that make for interestingly shaped rooms. It had antique furniture and poor plumbing (at least by American standards!). This was within walking distance of the serene river that runs through the town and its ancient rock bridge - as well as places to eat, small independently owned shops, and, of course, the museum. Bath is a definite “must see” when visiting England.
The Curse-Maker was borrowed from our local library. We enjoyed sharing and hope you had a fun vicarious trip to Bath. John, as always, will respond to any comments around his review and or course England too.
Have a great Saturday!