WHAT TO EXPECT
The series has two distinct thread — political novels and “plain” mysteries. They almost all start with a dead body, but the political ones deal with the imperial family (from Tiberius through Gaius (Caligula) to Claudius), their foibles, and the deadly court intrigues.
The independent mysteries can mostly be read as standalone. There is some continuity with characters, but nothing that would stand in the way of enjoyment for lovers of historical mysteries and ancient Rome. The political thread is best read in order, as recurring characters and events do make more sense.
WHAT I LIKED
As with any historical fiction, research and attention to detail are one of the key attractions. Wishart is a classicist, and his excellent knowledge of Greek and Roman culture and history is showing. All the plots of his political novels are “it could have been this way”, adhering to the known facts and presenting am engaging behind-the-scene conspiracy to explain them (and Wishart is meticulous with his afterwords in giving details about his inspiration, research, and where he filled gaps). Even with the “regular” mysteries, Rome is a lively place, and the foibles and idiosyncrasies of its people are well represented.
Which brings us to the characters. Corvinus himself is a very likeable protagonist, easy-going but sharp enough. One can certainly imagine shooting the breeze with him in an afternoon over a lazy cup of wine (and wine does feature heavily in the book, Corvinus being a connoisseur). Other characters, from slaves to emperors are all well drawn, providing interesting human interactions. That said, don’t expect deep emotional arcs — the series is par for the course of hardboiled detectives, and the mystery is always the focus.
That said, all good detective mysteries are whydunit, more than just whodunit. Sure, catching the guilty party is crucial, but so is understanding their motivations. It gives us as readers a look into the human psyche, which is the allure of all such mysteries. And Wishart certainly excels with this aspect.
WHAT TO BE AWARE OF
Corvinus has a very unique voice, one that is a joy to read. Note that throughout the series Wishart uses a modern language to bring the characters to life. He’s also using a time-honoured trope of representing the Roman patriarchy similar to British aristocracy. The result is a novel that reads as a cross between Sam Spade and Downton Abbey, on a backdrop of ancient Rome. It makes for very enjoyable experience for lovers of those genres – we’re not reading in Latin, after all, so taking a purist view is in itself a untenable proposition.
However, I know that this can be polarising amongst readers of historical fiction, feeling that the characters speech is anachronistic. My advice would be to give it a try — you’d know within two chapters if you love it or hate it. (I literally had a smile on my face from the time I started the first book).
And though Wishart’s prose is otherwise excellent, he tends to avoid Latin terms to the point where it’s a bit much (like referring to a toga as a mantle, or to Saturnalia as Winter Festival). Even though Wishart adds some more later in the series, I find it a bit diluting of the Roman experience.
I've asked Felix, one Romanesque investigator to another, what he thinks. He has no doubt that Corvinus and him would be able to spend many fun hours crawling from tavern to tavern to sample all the regional wines available. He might not be able to match Corvinus' purse, but he could repay the favour with his patented anti-hangover charm. While there's a line between diletants and professionals, Felix feels that what with Corvinus dogged dedication to resolve the mysteries and his track record, he's certainly crossed that line. He could see them collaborating happily and productively.
This series is an absolute must for lovers of historical mysteries and Roman-era fiction (a la Lidnsey Davis, Steven Saylor, or Ruth Downie). You’d know within a couple of chapters if Corvinus is your friend of not, and I’d highly suggest you give it a shot.
If you want to read the series in order, start with Ovid. My own top favourite is White Murder, dealing with the chariot-racing factions (a subject that appears in my own In Victrix), though do note the book is about double the typical length. If you want other good samples, the latest Going Back is a good one, as are Solid Citizens, Old Bones, and Food for the Fishes. (And if you read through all of their descriptions — yes, Corvinus can hardly go on vacation without bodies popping up).
Anyway. One of my most favoured series, and I’m eagerly looking for the next volume. Go read the character interview mentioned above, or jump into the books. You can thank me later.