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Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire    by Ruth Downie order for
by Ruth Downie
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Gaius Petreius Ruso - the protagonist of this engaging Roman Empire mystery series debut - is a divorced army doctor, who in Medicus has just joined his friend Valens, to work at a 20th Legion outpost in the Britannia port of Deva (now Chester). You know it's going to be fun from the initial quote, Horace's 'Oh Goddess, safeguard Caesar as he sets off for the remotest regions of the Earth - Britain.' And then there's a play-like listing of what will happen to our hero in the story, informing readers that he will be, for example, 'avoided by a barber's mother-in-law' and 'assaulted by a soup bowl'.

Ruso's first day on the job is a busy one. Valens is off sick with severe food poisoning, and he has to dispose of a (murdered) female corpse hauled out of the river. Then, despite the fact that his funds are in short supply - his father's death revealed a juggling of debts that the family now struggles to repay before Ruso's younger brother and his growing family are thrown off the farm in Gaul - Ruso buys a young female slave with a broken arm from her abusive owner. Needing a place for her to stay while she recovers, he pays for her lodging at the local whorehouse, Merula's. Finding her own name unpronounceable, he calls her Tilla.

The hospital administrator Priscus returns from a trip to get in Ruso's hair, assign him a scribe named Albanus (who turns out to be surprisingly useful in digging out information) and generally prove a nuisance. Then the female corpse is identified as being that of Saufeia, one of Merula's girls, and Ruso learns that another had earlier gone missing. Despite the fact that he tells everyone who will listen that he is not investigating the deaths, it's assumed that the new doctor has taken an interest - and soon Ruso has narrow escapes from death himself. In the meantime, Tilla makes her own plans to head home to Brigante lands in the north.

Of course, the idealistic Ruso stumbles across the villains (who are closer to him than he would have guessed) in a story that made me think of Mash set in Roman Britain - except that Alan Alda would play Ruso's sneaky friend Valens instead of the lead in this case. I enjoyed Medicus very much and plan to keep reading this delightful series.

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