Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder series:
- Roman Blood (1991)
- Arms of Nemesis (1992)
- Catilina's Riddle (1993)
- The Venus Throw (1995)
- A Murder on the Appian Way (1996)
- The House of the Vestals (1997) -- short stories
- Rubicon (1999)
- Last Seen in Massilia (2000)
- A Mist of Prophecies (2002)
A Mist of Prophecies
by Steven Saylor
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
288 pages, 2002
Buy it online
"With the Romans, we have cookbooks, letters, erotic poetry, political speeches, natural history. We just have an enormous amount of literary source material that tells us not just what happened, but how did these people really think, what motivated them, what were their personalities like? And the great people on the world stage, how did their personalities clash? We have a lot of drama. There're good stories, good material."
The legend of the Gordian knot runs roughly thus: For centuries, an oxcart sat in a temple square in Turkey, its yoke and shaft bound by an elaborate knot. Lured by a prophecy that whoever managed to undo the knot would become the ruler of all Asia, many nimble-fingered challengers attempted to unravel its threads. But the knot remained tied until the day that Alexander the Great rode into town.
* * *
Bent on conquering Asia, with army in tow, Alexander could not pass up the Gordian knot and its legend. He pondered the problem for a while before muttering, "It makes no difference how it is loosed." And, drawing his sword, he severed the knot with one stroke.
As a metaphor for unconventional problem-solving, the legend of the Gordian knot has proved hugely popular. The moniker "Gordian" is used by a Nebraska book imprint, a Hungarian music company and a Tennessee health-care consulting concern, to list but a few. It's also the inspiration behind the name author Steven Saylor gave to his fictional detective: Gordianus, star of a series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, the newest of which is A Mist of Prophecies.
Gordianus, also known as the Finder, makes a living asking questions, dredging up secrets, and bouncing back and forth between the scheming politicians of Rome in the last century before Christ. The job is tough and disreputable, but not exactly brutal; the 62-year-old Gordianus seldom has to imitate Alexander and resort to the sword. He's a man of words, not action. All of which makes the story of Alexander's swinging solution -- while appealing in its rebelliousness -- rather an inappropriate metaphor for this detective's life.
Fortunately, like most legends, the story of the Gordian knot has an alternate ending: Instead of chopping the knot apart, Alexander simply pulled out the peg holding the oxcart shaft to the yoke, letting the knot fall open from the inside. Efficient, creative and subtle. What better attributes could a detective hope to have?
Saylor's detective is generally all of these things, but subtle most of all. He has to be. In combining two distinct literary genres -- historical fiction and detective fiction -- Saylor comes down firmly on the side of history. The nine volumes of Saylor's "Roma Sub Rosa" series all involve actual historical figures, trials, scandals, battles and murders. Occasionally, as in A Mist of Prophecies, the central mystery follows a fictional character -- in this case, a prophetess named Cassandra. But more often, Gordianus is hired by the likes of Cicero, Pompey and Caesar, notables anxious to dig up dirt on each other.
"If [Gordianus] did his job well, he wouldn't appear in the historical record," Saylor says. "He would kind of be an invisible person, as most people are in the historical record."
The 46-year-old Saylor writes his novels from a setting appropriately evocative of the Mediterranean: the sunny back deck of his house in Berkeley, California, surrounded by flowering fruit trees and the plashing of a little plug-in fountain. A small man with dark hair going somewhat to gray, Saylor exudes an unusual blend of calm and energy. Since he began the Gordianus series more than a decade ago, he has published a book nearly every year, including A Twist at the End (2000), an inventive standalone novel based on a series of historical unsolved crimes in his native Texas. And due out next year is an autobiographical suspense novel, Have You Seen Dawn?, set in modern-day, small-town Texas. Both of the Texas books revolve around serial killers, a fact that Saylor recognizes as ironic.
"I never thought I'd write about serial killers," admits Saylor. "They don't interest me."
Then again, when he arrived at the concept of the first Gordianus novel, Roman Blood, Saylor had no idea that he would wind up writing a multi-volume saga of a man and his family trying to survive and thrive in the waning Roman Republic.
* * *
As Saylor says, Gordianus is indeed rather an invisible person. He's just an ordinary guy, an honest man whose chief problem in life is the conflict between his desire to be a quiet homebody and his obsession with uncovering the truth. (This discord apparently runs in the blood; Gordianus' origins are obscure, but he reveals that he learned his craft from his dead father.) Over the course of the series, his family has grown from two (Gordianus and his Jewish-Egyptian slave/concubine, Bethesda) to 10 (two adopted sons and a natural daughter, plus their various spouses and offspring). He's got a lot of loved ones to worry about, and they don't make it easier for him. His elder son, Eco, has followed in his footsteps as a professional investigator. His younger son, Meto, is a soldier in Julius Caesar's service. His daughter, Diana, is married to Gordianus' bodyguard, Davus, and keeps threatening to be a pesky female and help him solve mysteries. And his aloof but passionate wife, the manumitted Bethesda, wishes that he would just stay safely at home.
Gordianus' household is sensitively depicted, and it is something of a poignant pleasure to watch all of its members age over the course of the books. But as characters, they pale by comparison with the larger-than-life historical figures who sashay and stomp their way through Saylor's works. The dyspeptic, hypocritical advocate Cicero, the beautiful, decadent aristocrat Clodia, the elusive, charming politician Catilina -- these and the rest of the long-dead crowd of "real" people stick more firmly in the reader's mind than any of Saylor's fictional folk. Even the notorious dictator Sulla, who has a mere cameo appearance in Roman Blood, is vividly portrayed: "His skin was splotched and discolored, dotted with blemishes and etched all over with red veins as fine as bee's hair." Gordianus, on the other hand, is repeatedly described as average-looking; in A Mist of Prophecies, he gazes in a mirror and sees nothing more than "a gray-bearded man whose face was lined with worries."
Of course, Gordianus and his family are everyday people trying to live everyday lives, while the celebrities who keep butting in are anything but quotidian.
"All these famous historical figures, they didn't die in bed," points out Saylor. "They died in the saddle, so to speak. And they would have been proud of that. The historical record we have is not about normal, average people. It's about Caesar, Pompey, Cleopatra, people who might have to be institutionalized today. Either they would be Bill Gates or Hannibal Lecter -- I'm not sure which. These are people who lived ego-driven, almost maniacal existences. I don't know how they managed it. Whereas the average person in history is kind of lost; we have a hard time finding them, what they were actually like, what their values were."
The lack of strong fictional characterization is forgivable when compared to the lush atmosphere and creative plot-handling in these novels. Saylor doesn't just toss a clutch of men in togas into the Forum; he describes how difficult it is to wind oneself into a toga, and how hot the stones in the Forum feel on a summer day, burning through shoe leather. He makes the fact that his detective happens to run into a lot of famous people on a regular basis feel absolutely believable; this is a city, after all, of just one million people, where everybody prefers to pass the time outdoors in such convenient hangouts as the Forum. And, by sticking to the facts of ancient events, Saylor pulls off an unusual feat: writing one long historical saga disguised as a mystery series. The suspense behind each book isn't Will Gordianus solve the mystery? but, Will Gordianus survive yet another round of scheming? It's I, Claudius for the beach-reading crowd.
In A Mist of Prophecies, Saylor departs from pattern by going behind the scenes, as it were, and writing a novel focused solely on the women of Rome. The book is a series of interviews with seven historical women, mostly politicians' wives, about the murder of an eighth, fictional woman, the mysterious seeress Cassandra.
"What was going on with the women?" Saylor asks. "That's what intrigued me. After doing the last two books [Rubicon and Last Seen in Massilia] about the war [between forces loyal to Pompey and Caesar], I wanted to get back to intrigue."
Saylor also departs from form by having Gordianus -- heretofore always a loyal, faithful husband -- fall in love and into an affair with Cassandra. It's an unusual development, but no more so than the shocker at the end of Last Seen in Massilia, where Gordianus, in a rage, disowns his son Meto.
"There's a civil war going on, and Gordianus' family has to mirror the civil war in some way," explains Saylor. "There's got to be family conflict."
And in a third innovation, Saylor drops his usual straightforward story structure in favor of alternating flashbacks and interviews. The central scene in A Mist of Prophecies -- Cassandra's sudden death in a busy marketplace -- turns out to be the heart of the book, from which the story spirals both forward and back. (Because of this novel's time-twisting structure, the scene is actually written out twice.) No real-life celebrities wander through, but otherwise, the scene has all the Saylor strengths: current political tensions reflected in the market's exorbitant prices, descriptive touches ladled over such everyday objects as a bunch of radishes (they exude "the smell of hot Etruscan sunshine") and a plot simmering just below the surface.
In the scene, Gordianus and his family are shopping, or trying to. His wife is sick with a mysterious, lingering ailment. The civil war has pushed his debts so high, he can't afford to feed his household. He's stricken with guilt over his love affair. Suddenly, the blond, enigmatic Cassandra herself staggers into the marketplace, stumbles into Gordianus' arms, and dies. The staring crowd gathers round. Rumors fly.
"Did you see that? She died in the old man's arms!"
"Cassandra -- that's what people called her."
"I heard she was a war widow. Went crazy with grief."
"No, no, no! She was a Briton, from way up north. They're all crazy. Paint themselves blue."
"I heard she was a Vestal who broke her vows and got herself buried alive. Managed to claw her way out of the grave but ended up raving mad."
"Nonsense! You'll believe anything."
"All I know is, she could see the future."
"Could she? I wonder if she saw that coming."
In Gordianus' world -- a world lacking a police force, forensic science or, indeed, much in the way of objective reasoning -- detection is two-thirds psychology and persuasion and, with a bit of luck, one-third proof. Against superstition, prejudice, hearsay, custom and myth, it's an uphill battle.
* * *
When no one comes forward to claim Cassandra's body, Gordianus arranges for her funeral himself. At the cremation, seven silent guests appear -- seven women, all connected by marriage or blood or love to powerful Roman politicians. Confused, angry and grieving, Gordianus begins interviewing them all, trying to find out what their connections were to Cassandra.
The women are Calpurnia, Caesar's wife; Terentia, Cicero's wife; Antonia, Mark Antony's wife; Cytheris, Mark Antony's actress-lover; Fulvia, a widow of two politicians and the future wife of Mark Antony; Fausta, the daughter of the late Sulla; and Clodia, the lovely, scandalous sister of the murdered politician Clodius. Needless to say, none of these women is exactly forthcoming with Gordianus, who seems a bit out of his element, wandering through a haze of femininity. He goes through his routine of politely persistent questioning, but the results are minimal, and in the end, most of the answers he wants come not from his own efforts but from the women taking pity on him and confessing their secrets. As Clodia says, angrily, "You think you know everything, Gordianus, yet you know nothing!"
Researching A Mist of Prophecies, says Saylor, proved to be similarly frustrating. "What was really daunting is there are no biographies of any of these women from the ancient world," he explains. "Plutarch could not imagine writing the biography of a woman. Not even Cleopatra. We have virtually no primary material at all. All we have is references in the biographies of the men. So that was one of the challenges, trying to visualize these women without the kind of sources I've had in the past about the men."
Some of the women in A Mist of Prophecies -- Clodia, Fulvia and Fausta, as well as a few other minor players -- have appeared previously in the Roma Sub Rosa series, and thus are more recognizable than the book's other women. But Saylor does a creditable job of keeping all of his female characters from blurring together, and a few of the new ones -- Calpurnia and Cytheris, in particular -- register strongly. And Cassandra, the fictional prophetess, eclipses them all. She's truly mysterious and intriguing, and it's perfectly understandable that Gordianus would be mesmerized by her.
"It's essentially a portrait gallery of these important women in Rome at that time," says Saylor of his book. "And at the end, things are set up to take Gordianus to Egypt, where he will finally meet Cleopatra. In many ways, the entire series has just been a progress toward Cleopatra."
In 1991, when Roman Blood was published, Saylor had no plans to turn his historical mystery into a series. He had built a career as a writer and editor of gay erotica (his writings in this field, mostly for such magazines as Drummer, are frequently anthologized), and Roman Blood was both his first novel and a significant departure from his previous work.
"I thought I was writing a 'literary novel,'" Saylor recalls. "At least, that's what I told my editor when he asked for a sequel."
A fan of ancient Roman culture since childhood, Saylor studied the classical world as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin, but didn't visit Rome until the late 1980s. The trip proved so enthralling that, after his return to the United States, Saylor hunted around for something to keep his mind in ancient Rome. He lit upon a Penguin edition of Cicero's murder trials. The book's very first case -- Cicero's oration defending Sextus Roscius, a Roman who had been charged with murdering his own father -- eventually became the basis of Roman Blood.
"It's about a young advocate lawyer who, the more he finds out about this case, the more danger he's in. And that's classic John Grisham," says Saylor. "Knowledge is dangerous. You've got to crusade for the truth."
Saylor's first draft featured Cicero as the muckraking detective, with his secretary Tiro playing the faithful Watson. But Cicero's self-serving personality began to set Saylor's teeth on edge, so he scrapped Plot A and started over with Plot B: Gordianus, a fictional, hungover, underemployed private investigator, is visited one morning by Tiro, who asks him for help in the Sextus Roscius case. A great deal of skullduggery, politics, family secrets, seaminess and violence ensues; by the end of Roman Blood, Gordianus is disgusted, fascinated, exasperated, relieved and the adoptive father of a street urchin. The boy's name? Eco -- in honor of Umberto Eco, whose 1983 best-selling historical mystery, The Name of the Rose, was as influential as Cicero on Saylor's choice of genre.
"It was historical, and it was a murder mystery," Saylor explains. "And that just struck me as this perfect combination. I thought, 'That's it. That's everything I want to read in a book.'"
In the late 1980s, when Saylor started out, writers of ancient Roman mysteries were few and far between. Since then, at least 10 novelists have developed mystery series set in various eras of ancient Rome. The best-known of these writers (besides Saylor) is probably Britain's Lindsey Davis, whose newest work, The Jupiter Myth, is the 14th in her series. Her detective, Marcus Didius Falco, is a Hammettesque tough guy employed by the emperor Vespasian. There's even a popular series aimed at the young-adult market: Caroline Lawrence's "Roman Mysteries" series, featuring four adolescent sleuths of the first century A.D.
"With the Romans, we have cookbooks, letters, erotic poetry, political speeches, natural history," notes Saylor. "We just have an enormous amount of literary source material that tells us not just what happened, but how did these people really think, what motivated them, what were their personalities like? And the great people on the world stage, how did their personalities clash? We have a lot of drama. There're good stories, good material."
There's also a milieu not unlike that of today. It's easy to draw comparisons between ancient Rome and the modern West: both can be characterized as politically fraught, economically rapacious and culturally dominating. (Saylor has cited disgust with the politics of America's Reagan-Bush era as a third influence on his writing of Roman Blood.) Historical fiction, at least for some, can be less an act of escape than an exercise in metaphor. And it's hard to imagine a more versatile tool for this exploratory activity than the go-anywhere, annoy-anyone figure of the detective. Yes, it's an anachronistic choice. But then, playing by the rules isn't always the way to win the game. | June 2002
Caroline Cummins is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.