In the introductory volume of John Maddox Roberts’ historical crime series, now consisting of more than 10 volumes, Decius, a low-ranking Roman official, begins an investigation into the murder of a freed slave. The setting is during the crisis of the Roman Republic in 70 B.C. And guess who Decius encounters right away in the first chapter? Bravo, you guessed it: none other than the up-and-coming Gaius Julius Caesar. Then, of course, other well-known figures of the era appear one after the other, from Pompey the Great to Cicero, and up to the scamp Publius Clodius Pulcher.
Although “The King’s Gambit” is theoretically a crime novel, as it possesses many of its characteristics (coroner, informant, tough sidekick), it feels more like you’re reading a historical novel. The thin thread of the investigation is not very exciting or original (it occasionally uses well-known historical facts clumsily to advance the plot, hello, pirates), and most of the time, it gets overshadowed by discussions of current political and historical conditions. This is partly because young Decius becomes OBSESSED with the idea that he has stumbled into a seditious conspiracy. And that everyone is against him. What?!
The conspiracy accusation later bursts and degrades into a simple political maneuver. There you go! However, Decius doesn’t give up; he continues to pursue the case. No one understands why he is so enthusiastically involved in a miserable slave’s affair. No one. Not even you.
The first installment of John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series mostly resembles the pilot episode of a detective TV series that hasn’t found its own voice yet, but it’s not terribly bad, and you hope it will find its way eventually.
What, however, can unequivocally be credited to the “The King’s Gambit’s” merit is the seemingly entirely authentic portrayal of the historical period. I abandoned the Gordianus series in a similar genre precisely because it lacked this authenticity. Unfortunately for it, I had just finished reading Colleen McCullough’s monumental Masters of Rome series, and it quickly fell short in comparison.
That’s not the case with this book. On the contrary, seamlessly integrated into the text, almost every other paragraph provides information that helps you understand the political and social conditions of the era more clearly or makes you feel like you are strolling alongside the eager beaver Decius on the narrow, cobblestone streets of Rome.
The King’s Gambit (SPQR #1) by John Maddox Roberts
274 pages, Paperback
Published in 1990 by Minotaur Books