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The King's Gambit: SPQR I    by John Maddox Roberts order for
King's Gambit
by John Maddox Roberts
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2001 (1990)
* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Ancient Rome was a fascinating and dangerous place, full of greed, intrigue and sex - the perfect setting for mystery novels as Lindsay Davis and Steven Saylor have so wonderfully demonstrated. John Maddox Roberts is a third author who has chosen ancient Rome as his setting for his SPQR (Senatus populusque Romanus or Senate and the People of Rome) series. The Davis series is set in imperial Rome around 70 AD, while the Saylor and Maddox Roberts books take place in the Republican period approximately 150 years earlier.

This earliest of the Maddox Roberts books, The King's Gambit was originally published in 1990 and became an Edgar nominee. Fortunately for readers it was reissued by St. Martin's Minotaur. While the Davis and Saylor series feature private detectives or 'finders', Maddox Roberts' sleuth is government official Decius Metellus. A patrician by birth, young Decius has been a soldier and is now starting to move up the ranks of Roman public life as the commander of vigiles or night watchmen in the rough Suburra district of Rome.

As the book begins in 70 B.C.E., Decius has just learned of a murder on his patch and another one occurs shortly afterwards. Although neither of the victims is an important or high-born man, Decius pursues his investigation conscientiously. As he proceeds, he encounters many people famous from our history books - such as a young Julius Caesar at the start of his climb to power and Cicero just beginning his renowned legal career.

Rome in those days was full of political intrigue with deadly consequences for losers. The republic was ruled by co-consuls who changed each year, so there was much plotting by consuls to maximize their power and wealth once they left office. The 70 B.C.E. co-consuls were the very successful general Pompey and the immensely wealthy Crassus. Their nefarious ambitions covered all of the Mediterranean world from Spain in the west to the farthest reaches of Persia and Armenia in the east. And woe to anyone such as Decius who got in their way.

Maddox Roberts has created enjoyable characters such as the Greek physician Asklepiodes whose knowledge of what type of weapons cause what kind of wounds provides an early forensic angle to the book. Several alluring women appear, including the lovely (of course), scheming Claudia and her mysterious slave, contortionist Chrysis. However, it must be admitted that the main character Decius is not as well-fleshed out as Saylor's Gordianus or Davis's Falco. But this is the first volume and Decius will of course grow with the series.

One of the pleasures of reading about ancient Rome is in comparing its lifestyle to our life today. Many similarities exist and they're not always good ones especially in political life. At one point, Decius remarks that compared to the earlier days of the Republic 'Now all was changed. It was wealth that got a man into the Senate, not selfless public service'. And Caesar was 'everyone's friend when he was on his way up. It is the politician's art.' Not much different today is it?

The King's Gambit ends with an unexpected and non-traditional, but very satisfying, conclusion which leaves the reader eager to start the second installment of the series, The Catiline Conspiracy.

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