Monday, November 30, 2015

"Next Time I Throw Myself on Top of You," Said a Disembodied Baritone, "The Least You Could Do Is to Struggle"

By Marilyn Todd (born 1958).
Crippen & Landru Publishers (homepage HERE).
2015. 284 text pages + 5-page checklist.
Collection: 11 stories.
Parental caution: Strong language and adult situations.
For sale HERE with author's bookpage HERE.
If you don't always like your mysteries with contemporary settings, there are a few authors who can oblige by taking the reader centuries into the past to places that once teemed with people but are now crumbling jumbles of detritus; one of the best at this approach is Marilyn Todd.

Rather than trying to ape the stilted style of speech that we've come to expect from badly-dubbed sword-and-sandal movies, Todd modernizes the proceedings in such a way as to keep her characters from sounding like a dress rehearsal for a high school production of Julius Caesar while preserving the salient attributes of the ancient cultures she places us in. The result makes for smoother reading and assists us in concentrating more on the mystery plot.

Swords, Sandals and Sirens collects eleven of Todd's historical mysteries, with settings in either ancient Greece (three stories) or, most often, Rome in the time of Augustus Caesar (seven stories, with one other set earlier, during Julius Caesar's dalliance with the Queen of the Nile). The Greek stories feature several characters: the wholly mythical Echo, as well as two more down-to-earth individuals, the Delphic Oracle and Iliona, a high priestess who has appeared in at least three novels.

The remaining Roman stories focus on Claudia Seferius, the always cash-strapped widow of a wine merchant—and a real looker. Thanks to the prevailing oppressive tax structure and the repressive patriarchal culture of the times, Claudia is often forced to skirt the law, always with the prospect of exile from Rome lurking in the back of her mind—but it seems that every time she's about to make a big score that will get her out of the red, somebody gets murdered. When that happens, the law's long arm soon appears, sometimes like a wraith from the shadows, in the person of Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, a patrician member of the Secret Police whose ambition for promotion would make squashing a minor scofflaw like Claudia the work of but a moment. Yet when these two get together to solve a murder, for some reason Marcus overlooks his duty and never does nab her. Maybe it's his respect for her smarts, maybe it's her regard for his prowess, maybe it's his concern for her welfare, maybe it's her respect for his position—and maybe, just maybe, it's because they're in love.

Here are the stories and the principal "sleuths":

(1) "Bad Day on Mount Olympus" (The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy, 2001) (Echo)
~ The usual conference-cum-orgy of the demigods is interrupted when Hercules proposes a regime change; it's up to little Echo to head off a holocaust if she can . . . can . . . can . . .

(2) "Bad Taste" (EQMM, June 2014) (Claudia Seferius)
~ They say no good deed goes unpunished, as Claudia learns when at a Roman bacchanal being held by one of Caesar's relatives someone tries to poison her; surely this is the wrong response to saving a man's life, is it not?
(3) "Cover Them with Flowers" (EQMM, November 2012) (Iliona, High Priestess of the Temple of Eurotas)
~ When nine women are murdered in the same ritualistic fashion, Iliona reluctantly joins with Lysander of the Spartan Secret Police to bring their killer down; to the high priestess, the most telling clue the murderer leaves behind is three neatly carved wooden flowers, provid-ing her with an insight into the motivation behind these atrocities.
(4) "Cupid's Arrow" (EQMM, September/October 2003) (Claudia Seferius)
~ On a sultry summer's day Claudia witnesses a brazen attempt at theft which ends badly for the thief with an arrow in the back. Claudia's next-door neighbor, a brutal man, quickly emerges, saying that the thief has just murdered his wife; Claudia, though, has good reason to believe he killed her himself. The problem, as usual, lies in proving it.

(5) "Death at Delphi" (EQMM, March/April 2007) (Cassandra, the Delphic Oracle)
~ A general of the army of a certain Greek city-state dies just after consulting the Oracle of Delphi concerning his plans to overthrow his king; while most think his death is meet punishment by the gods, the Delphic Oracle herself believes it was an assassination engineered by mortals, something that could only be accomplished by someone who works at the temple, someone who, to her sorrow, she loves very much.

(6) "Girl Talk" (Past Poisons, 1998; reprinted in EQMM, May 2000) (Claudia Seferius)
~ Claudia's inclination to operate just outside the law gets her into a very dangerous situation involving a political conspiracy, a murder with a headless body and a bodiless head—and a potentially fatal confrontation with a fanatic's arrow aimed straight at her heart.
(7) "Honey Moon" (The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits, 2003) (Claudia Seferius)
~ The State has decreed that Claudia must remarry, and not being one to overlook any opportunites at self-improvement she relentlessly pursues and weds one of the wealthiest men in Rome; on their honeymoon, however, tragedy strikes—but it strikes in a fashion that will meet even the approval of The State.
(8) "Stag Night" (The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, 2000; reprinted in EQMM, July 2002) (Claudia Seferius)
~ For some men it isn't sport unless blood is spilled. Seeing a chance to secure some wine contracts, Claudia accepts an invitation to spend time on a vast country estate owned by a man who enriches himself by giving wealthy businessmen an opportunity to hunt down wild game—but, as Claudia will learn almost too late, not all of their prey runs on four legs.

(9) "Swan Song" (EQMM, February 2006) (Claudia Seferius)
~ It's a time for celebration in Rome and Claudia is making the most of it in her continuing search for a worthy husband, but she could never have anticipated running afoul of someone consumed by a dangerous compound of hatred and ambition, someone with no qualms about bashing in a man's head, framing somebody else for it, and murdering Claudia.

(10) "The Wings of Isis" (The Mammoth Book of Egyptian Whodunnits, 2002; reprinted in EQMM, March 2003) (Cleopatra, Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt)
~ Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown (or, in Cleopatra's case, the wig), what with people whom you must rely upon dreaming up plots to depose you every chance they get—and even if they can't kill you outright, there are ways to discredit you. When one of Cleopatra's high priestesses dies in an apparent accident, the Queen's authority to rule comes into question; she will need her own wits and the investigative skills of several loyal officers to prove that this "accident" was, in fact, a carefully planned murder.
(11) "Trunk Call" (Murder Through the Ages, 2000; reprinted in EQMM, May 2001) (Claudia Seferius)
~ Not many people die from the sniffles, but an Imperial official who specializes in buying and training pachyderms for Caesar's bread-and-circuses seems to have managed to do just that. Three grieving women, all claiming to be his wife, are eloquent evidence of his peccancy, but only one has good reason to suspect he must have been murdered—and so does the man she really loves. In order to dodge official attention for a shady deal that she has just entered into with the deceased, Claudia once again will reluctantly have to assist Marcus of the Secret Police in figuring out whodunnit.
- Wikipedia's entry for Claudia Seferius is HERE, Marilyn Todd's own website is HERE, and the FictionMags listing of her short stories is HERE.

Category: Sword-and-sandal sleuthing of a high order

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