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Nox Dormienda: A Long Night for Sleeping
by Kelli Stanley
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Rating:
Reviewed by: Po Wong

Kelli Stanley's first novel is a noir-flavored murder mystery set in Roman-occupied Britain in 83 A.D. Cast in the role of the hard-boiled detective is Arcturus, the personal physician of Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia.

The governor is an actual historical figure, one of several popping up in the course of the novel. Arcturus, on the other hand, is a fictitious creation, a doctor whose forensic skills involve him in affairs beyond his examining room. To the author's credit, historical and fictional characters alike come alive, with character development and the plot receiving equal attention.

The plot involves the murder of a visiting Syrian, possibly an agent of the Roman emperor with the mission of dismissing Arcturus's boss. As Arcturus and his coterie of assistants (actually various slaves and servants attached to his household) and allies investigate, they find themselves knee deep in more murders and political intrigue.

As detective story plots go, Nox Dormienda (meaning, according to Stanley, a long night for sleeping) does a good job keeping the reader mystified. I am not sure that the Sam Spade overtones really work in a Roman-British setting; the wisecracks and tough guy talk sound a little strange to me, coming from (as I picture it) the mouth of a toga-clad doctor rather than a trench coat-wearing PI. But at least the mystery itself moves along at an effective pace and the resolution is both satisfactory and satisfying.

Equally satisfying are the glimpses that the author provides into Roman life. Many scenes are set in Arcturus's household, for instance "a good opportunity for us to painlessly learn about what went on in a Roman household" what they wore, what they ate, where they slept. Also, Arcturus deals with characters from all levels of Roman society, so we get a vivid portrayal of how slaves were considered as property rather than people, for example, or of how, in the shadowy world of Roman politics, the wrong move could cost someone not just his career but his life as well.

Given that her detective is a physician, Stanley does a particularly good job showing how medicine was practiced in those days way before X-rays and antibiotics. We see Arcturus prescribing herbal remedies for a variety of ailments as he receives patients other than his patron. We see him doing forensics as well, as he makes deductions based on his examination of the corpses -- the ancient version of CSI. Particularly impressive is the chapter in which Arcturus must do emergency surgery on a Roman soldier who has received a potentially fatal sword wound to the gut. Of course, a noir novel would be incomplete without a femme fatale, and Nox Dormienda provides one in the form of damsel in distress Gwyna, a freewoman promised in marriage to the first murder victim. As befits a private-eye story, the novel keeps us guessing as to whether the damsel will turn out to be the love -- or end -- of our hero's life. Overall, this is a promising start to a planned mystery series. My only problem with the book is that it seems to be slightly overcrowded with characters and subplots. (Admittedly, the Roman names may also make it hard to remember who's who.) Nox Dormienda could use some tightening up, but even as is, it lives up to its name in a way -- it's a mystery that can keep you reading deep into the night.


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