The House of the Vestals by Steven Saylor

Cover of The House of the Vestals by Steven Saylor

Cover of The House of the Vestals by Steven Saylor

The House of the Vestals is a collection of nine short stories by Steven Saylor, featuring his ancient Roman detective, Gordianus the Finder.  The stories take place between 80 and 72 BCE and fill in the gap between the first two novels in the series, Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis.  In this collection, you see Gordianus’ adopted son, a mute boy named Eco, grow up and help him solve some of the cases.  Gordianus’ Jewish-Egyptian slave and mistress, Bethesda, also plays a prominent role.  We also learn how Gordianus met some of the regular characters in the series, including his aristocratic friend Lucius Claudius and his bodyguard Belbo.  Historical figures such as Cicero and his future enemy Catilina make appearances, and one story was inspired by an incident where the young Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates.

In reading the stories, you learn a lot about the customs of ancient Rome, including the theater, the belief in ghosts, and the traditions of Saturnalia, the Romans’ winter solstice holiday.  Characters from the entire spectrum of Roman society, from aristocrats to slaves, are featured.  In the last story, which is the title story, readers learn about the Vestal Virgins and the punishment they faced if they broke their vows.  Several of the stories are based on actual cases that Cicero defended in court.  The mysteries themselves are not terribly difficult to solve.  In fact, Bethesda solves one of them as soon as Gordianus tells her what happened.  But they make for very entertaining reading.  I would suggest, though, that you begin the series with either Roman Blood or the prequels that Saylor has been writing recently about the young Gordianus, the first of which is The Seven Wonders.  Also, the afterword contains spoilers for later books in the series.  For fans of the series, though, The House of the Vestals is not to be missed.

Unfortunately, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library's copy of The House of the Vestals has been withdrawn.  But you can borrow the book from the University of Michigan Flint's library or check it out of the Ann Arbor District Library.

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