Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Blood of Caesar (Notebooks of Pliny the Younger Series) by Albert A. Bell, Jr.

The Blood of Caesar is the second case in the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger Series, that features a fictionalized version of the historical first-century Roman aristocrat, investigating murder and other crimes, usually in close proximity to the Roman Emperor.  The series is meant for adults, amateur Roman historians, and people who don't cringe and feel nauseous when reading about Ancient Rome's sadism.

The books in the series so far are (I provide covers and synopses below):
  1. All Roads Lead to Murder
  2. The Blood of Caesar
  3. The Corpus Conundrum
  4. Death in the Ashes
  5. The Eyes of Aurora

The author provides a glossary of some terms and some historical persons who appear in the story, and a chronology of the time leading up to the story, which begins in the summer of the year 83.  There is a first-person narration by Pliny himself, but it is not clear when the narrator is writing the story:  soon after the events or as the events unfold.  Generally speaking, it reads like a journal description of the events, but with very little hindsight.

Pliny often works his "cases" with his friend Tacitus, a fictionalized version of the historical first-century historian.  Here is how the author has Pliny describe the two young men:
...two obscure young equestrians, recently returned from holding minor provincial posts.

The story of The Blood of Caesar begins in the Forum of the Empire's capital, Rome.  The reader goes with Pliny up the steps to the palace of the Emperor Domitian, on the Palatine Hill, then passes through part of the palace complex, room by room.  Readers of historical fiction set in Ancient Rome should enjoy the rich details in the story:  games, homes, clothes, customs, food, traveling, servants, slaves, clients, sex habits (there is one explicit sex scene), marriage, family, sexism, correspondence, public administration, arts...

The first-century in the Roman empire is an interesting period in the thousand-year empire:  growing Christianity, a continual Jewish problem, a shaky succession of Emperors to follow Augustus's long reign...  But this book (and the series) is not for the Roman history novice.  Without some historical knowledge, many parts of the book would be too confusing.  And a basic knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology would help, too.

Enjoy this wonderful recreation of the Ancient Roman Capital:

There are moments when the narrator seems to be writing not a journal, but a classical textbook, inserting explanations no Roman would ever dream necessary for his reader:
...we settled onto couches in the exhedra, the outdoor eating area at the far end of the garden.
Sadly, the protagonist, Pliny the Younger, is not a man among men, nor a man enlightened for his time.  He is a slave-owner and as paternalistic as any Roman aristocratic head of family.  While he does not approve of raping, whipping or killing his slaves, he does not mind selling them off, or accepting slave-freebies from others.  Slaves were for Pliny and others "like pieces of furniture".

In fact, the strict historical accuracy of the book is my biggest problem with it.  Too often I found the book read like a fly-on-the-wall depiction for sick voyeurs of the horrible Roman society.  The society was one where pedophilia, prostitution, child-brides, child-murder, and all forms of misogyny were accepted, along with many other forms of sadism. 

For me, these things are just bearable if the protagonist condemns them.  So, if you are like me, you might not enjoy this series.  If you are not like me, then you have many books to enjoy, and the promise of more books to come. 

The publishers take pains to make the book's presentation special.  They have incorporated into the text and at the chapter headings the original illustrations from the 1901 edition of Ben Hur.  But I missed the proper form of possessive for names ending in "s" (i.e. Augustus's).

If you are a student of the Latin language, then you will get especial pleasure reading this author's series.  He incorporates into this prose many English words that come from Latin, in a sort of joke for Latinophiles, playing with the fiction that the characters are speaking Latin, and that the narration is in Latin.  For example:
He walked over to the scene with the hippopotami and examined it closely.  "Although your hippopotami aren't right.  They're not really horses, you know."
Here is a lovely computer-generated recreation of an Ancient Roman home:

The plot deals with the bloodline of Julius Caesar.  Augustus, Julius Caesar's great-nephew, brought peace after the civil wars that raged off and on after Caesar's assassination.  But after the death of Nero, the head of the Roman Empire passed around until it was taken up, by force, by Vespasian.  The last in Vespasian's Flavian line, Domitian, is worried his position could be undermined.
...the public's love for Augustus' family had not abated...the appearance of an actual descendant of Caesar...could prove troublesome to a ruler form any other family.
But we are almost a quarter of the way into the book before Pliny actually begins investigating a "case".  The book takes a long time to get moving, taking lots of time to set the scene.  When it does pick up speed, the author seems to really enjoy displaying how Caesar's blood, or genes, might show themselves in a descendent.  I won't say any more, because I don't want to ruin the story for anyone!

The Blood of Caesar is published by the Ingalls PublishingGroup.
Bringing readers great stories by Southern authors of historical fiction, murder mystery, romantic suspense and adventure!

 Book 1 in the Series
Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, the future historian, are returning from a posting by caravan and break the journey in Smyrna. In the morning one of their number is discovered with his heart cut out.  The authorities assume his slaves are responsible and prepare to take action: torture and death for all the man’s enslaved household.
Pliny is convinced not all is as it seems: the man did not die from having his heart removed, and the guilty party is not among his slaves.  More than a sense of justice motivates Pliny to work quickly; at risk is a beautiful and innocent young slave girl.
Pliny calls in the help of Tacitus and others in the caravan, Luke the biblical physician and his young companion Timothy.

Book 2 in the Series
Assigned by Emperor Domitian to search for blood heirs to the Emperor Augustus, Pliny and Tacitus seek solutions to layers of mysteries.  Why is a humble workman’s death important to the ruler of Rome, and what connects him to Pliny’s household? 

How do Domitian’s suspicions relate to Pliny’s old friend and mentor?  Is Tacitus’ father-in-law Agricola a villain, victim or savior?  Like a sinister red line slashed through a carefully prepared manuscript, the legacy of Augustus marks the connections. Will the answers save the peace of Rome, or mark its doom?
The Blood of Caesar was named a Best Mystery of 2008 by Library Journal.


Book 3 in the Series

While out hunting at his estate in Laurentum, Pliny finds a man’s body.  The man appears lifeless, but Pliny cannot find a cause of death.  He locks the body in a stable, but in the morning the body is gone.  He summons friend Tacitus to help discover how and why and who.  Strangers appear at Pliny’s door, claiming to be the man’s children.  One sings siren songs and claims his “father” is immortal.  Another may be an empusa, a shape-shifting, blood-drinking monster.

Bodies pile up:  a fifteen year old murder, a faceless man floating in the bay, and the “lifeless immortal,” this time with his throat cut.  Was he killed for his blood?  Clues include the parentage of a local whore who claims official friendship with Pliny’s adoptive father and an acrostic in Hebrew.  Pliny and Tacitus must discover how the murders are connected to each other and to Pliny’s nemesis Marcus Aquilius Regulus.

Book 4 in the Series

A few years after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, where he lost his adoptive father and mentor, Pliny the Younger is asked by his friend Aurelia to help her husband Calpurnius, who has been accused of murder in Naples. Pliny has solved previous crimes, but never before has so much time and distance elapsed before his arrival on the murder scene¦nor has he carried so much emotional baggage.

With the help of his wisecracking sidekick Tacitus, he now must investigate cunning plots by some descendants of Augustus, which include murders and babies switched at birth. One fortunate circumstance in Pliny's detective activities is that the hardened ash crust makes good impressions of hand- and foot-prints. But now, for the first time, Pliny must swallow his phobias and ghastly memories and face a deadly challenge in the ruins of a buried villa.

Book 5 in the Series

Pliny’s servant Aurora, who is also the forbidden love of his life, has played Good Samaritan to a woman who claims to be searching for her missing husband.  Thinking he can help the woman, Pliny steps in, assisted, as usual, by his friend Tacitus. 

But the situation turns into a web of deception and intrigue when they discover evidence of a horrific murder while searching in the countryside for clues to the whereabouts of the missing man.  After Aurora is injured, Pliny’s involvement becomes personal.  He’s even desperate enough to ask Regulus, his longtime sworn enemy, for help when the case brings him to the malevolent attention of the emperor Domitian.

Here are direct links to the books in the series at

Please visit the author's website where he describes his eclectic books:  mystery novels, historical novels, children's books, history of the New Testament, and baseball.

Here is one more amazing recreation of an Ancient Roman home:

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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