While the Emperor Slept by BR Stateham

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While the Emperor Slept is something of a departure from the norm for BR Stateham. The writer is more commonly known for his Smitty novels, written in the noir genre but his latest offering steps into the realm of historical crime fiction and the setting is first century Rome.

Meet Decimus Julius Virilius, retired soldier, distant cousin of Augustus Caesar, and now a Praetor in the Cohortes Urbanae – the ancient Roman version of detectives who investigate homicides and other violent crimes. Rome is a dangerous city and Decimus has made many enemies, so it’s not surprising that he finds himself under threat of assassination as the book opens. His instincts for detecting potential dangers are just as keen as his ability to sense when someone is lying. So when his cousin asks him to lead an investigation into the murder of senator Spurious Lavinius, he knows the importance of building a team around himself that he can trust.

In this mystery he’s paired up with a young centurion called Quintus Flavius, and several of his former comrades who have stayed in his service. Initially, Flavius is wary of his new commander but soon realises he can learn from Decimus. Quintus is not just quick to adapt he’s also very similar to Decimus in his approach to solving the crime. The older man constantly delights in his new protége’s aptitude and resourcefulness, primarily because he is reminded of his younger self and the fact that he has been assigned someone he is not just willing to work with and teach, but also comes to regard as a son.

The only down side to this book, and it really will depend on your perspective, is the overlong run-up to the actual crime being committed. There’s a lot of scene setting, which is important so that you understand the background and don’t get confused. On the other hand, when the deed is done you’re so engrossed in the detail it’s quite easy to breeze past it and find yourself needing to back up a few pages to catch up with what’s going on. Don’t expect not to learn something about first century Rome with this book!

It’s a novel full of intrigue, plotting, gladiators and pirates. What’s most enjoyable about this book is the way you’re drawn into the story by the constant theorising between Decimus and Quintus. It means you’re being given plenty of clues to join in the investigation yourself and draw your own conclusions.

The author has described the series as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Jason Bourne, and that’s actually a fair analogy though there are are no car chases or helicopters. This story is just as much a spy story as it is a crime story. Decimus is acutely aware there is more to his mission than he is being told and that he is a pawn in a dangerous political game being played by Rome’s elite. What he and Quintus unearth could get them both killed. They must stay alert and trust no one if they are to stay alive.

If crime fiction set in the ancient world is your thing, then While the Emperor Slept will most likely pique your interest. Possibly more akin to Steven Saylor‘s Gordianus novels than Lyndsey Davis’s Falco books and Flavia Albia mysteries. It’s a book that would also appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Paul Doherty’s Ancient Rome Mysteries set in the 4th century and featuring female detective, Claudia.

Endeavour Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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