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A Poisonous Thriller in Ancient Rome - an Editorial Review of "A Roman Death"

Book Blurb:

Historical thriller set in Ancient Rome. In 45 BC, Julius Caesar is at the height of his power. Lucius Scaurus, the young, good-looking fiance of a high-society girl is poisoned at the couple's own pre-wedding banquet. In the trial that follows, Roman society is shocked when the girl's mother, Helvia, is accused of not only of murder, but of incest. Cicero comes to Helvia's defence, but the killer's identity remains a mystery until the final twist - or two.

Author Bio:

In Memoriam - Joan O'Hagan (1926 - 2014)

Joan O'Hagan was a published author of crime fiction. Born in Australia, she studied Classics in Wellington, then lived in New Caledonia, England and Italy before returning to Australia in 1997. Her thirty years in Rome, including her time spent working in the Australian Department of Immigration, provided her with the backdrop to several of her novels. Her publications include:

'A Roman Death' (Black Quill Press, 1017; Macmillan 1988; Doubleday 1989, Tokyo Hawakawa Publishing 1990, Legenda 1990)

'Jerome & His Women' (Black Quill Press, 2015)

'Against the Grain' (Macmillan 1987, Doubleday 1988, Mondadori 1988)

'Death and a Madonna' (Macmillan 1986, Doubleday 1987)

'Incline and Fall: The Death of Geoffrey Stretton' (Angus & Robertson, 1976).

Book submitted by her daughter, Denise O'Hagan.

Editorial Review:

Fufidia, a beautiful fourteen-year-old girl, is the fulcrum of this well researched, clandestine novel set-in ancient Rome. She catches the eye of one, Lucius Scaurus, a young man about town, whose pleasures have exceeded his father’s means. A planned wedding to Julia, a woman of the grand old age of forty, is not exactly what Lucius desires, so he convinces his father to consent to a marriage to the youthful and lovely Fufidia, who’s family is wealthy. Because the Scaurii family has a grand reputation but has long since lost its fortune, Marcus Scaurus invites Fufidius to dine and proposes the idea of marriage between the two. While Fufidius is surprised at the offer, he likes the idea of his daughter marrying into the once prestigious Scaurii family and agrees to talk with his wife, Helvia. He returns home only to discover that Helvia is adamantly opposed to the idea and to the amount of a million and a half sestertii for the dowry but concedes to her husband. Unbeknownst to Fulfidius, gossip flourishes in Rome about Lucius Scaurus.

He was a pretty young officer, this Lucius Scaurus, sexy as a girl.” “…And Lucius is not only heavily in debt…He submits to men.”

The suggestion that young Lucius was a cinaedus, that he submits to men, was the lowest of gossip and a brilliant a titillating detail. Helvia desperately wants to stop the marriage giving in to patronizing a witch and praying to Isis, the goddess of passion.

Lucius drunkenly reads a poem at a party at the house of Eucharis besmirching his reputation, which the author authentically uses, leaving the reader impressed by the composition and sentence structure. Quintus, Fufidia’s brother questions the marriage of his sister to his father. The man she calls uncle, her mother’s brother, Cinna, is unhappy with the marriage as well.

The plot twists and thickens when Eucharis, who has a son with Fufidius, prays:

“…I am more deserving to be his wife that Helvia, who has sinned. Let Fufudius adopt our son; let Helvia, who is wicked die of ten diseases, and above all let me not be discovered in my favors to Marcus Scaurus…”

At a pre-wedding celebration,

Lucius-had not seemed to be drinking too much, but suddenly he was showing all the signs of it.”

And then the author pens a nice description of his death:

But it was that sleep from which no one wakes.”

Of course, circumstances, as well as her husband, point to Helvia as the murderer. Incriminating rumors of incest surface, which does not help her case. Her memory sped back to her early teens and the wild exuberant passion of brother and sister…which had the dangerous lure of illicit.”

The historical fiction reader’s attention piques at the mention of the name of Cicero, the famous ancient Roman lawyer, who steps in to save Helvia. A serious, beautifully written, trial follows, where Cicero skillfully uses motive, opportunity and means to defend his client. After several more unforeseen plot twists, including Cicero’s visit to a mutual relative, Gratidia, at the house of the Fufidii, he divulges his suspicions when they discuss the murder of Lucius Scaurus. The author’s unique use of a Postscript to add an exclamation mark of surprise and intrigue leaves the reader reeling.

“A Roman Death” is a carefully written murder mystery with well-rounded characters and soundly described scenes of Ancient Rome with the author weaving ancient Roman historical characters like Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar lending credibility to the story. The sheer idea of a cryptic murder drives the reader forward with every page, even though the unsophisticated reader of Roman history could possibly get lost in some of the Roman vernacular. But at times, when modern slang such as “mumbo jumbo” (first used 1738), “rigamarole” (first used 1736) is written as used by a famous character, such as Cicero, a historical reader can be pulled out of ancient Rome. A few examples used in other parts of the novel are “bathroom” (first used in the 1920’s), and “make love” (1600’s). Some readers, while understanding this is a work of historical fiction, might question a bit of its accuracy, but would most likely find the story so compelling that the pages will continue to turn.

The otherwise meticulous research by the author offers the reader a magnificent insight into ancient Rome, its people, its day-to-day life, and the human aspect of a time long gone. Intricate details create a voyeuristic, salacious, and mesmerizing account of a family struggling to stay within the norms of an ancient culture; one that no longer exists but is so well depicted by the author that it is familiar.

Fans of historical fiction as well as Roman history will find “A Roman Death” an exciting read.


“A Roman Death” by Joan O'Hagan receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company

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