Thursday, May 10, 2007

A finding of some irony

A novel history

Steven Saylor writes novels that are an amalgamation of history and mystery. His debut novel, Roman Blood, introduced the fictional character of Gordianus the Finder and immersed him in authentic historical situations. At first it seemed that Saylor was doing a kind of Sherlock Holmes hommage, but his Gordianus soon dropped his initial Sherlockian tendency to make astounding inferences from the tiniest of details and settled into a more conventional detective mode. That's okay by me, since Umberto Eco's Brother William of Baskerville is as much of a proto-Sherlock-Holmes as anyone is likely to need. Saylor was wise not to try to beat that. (However, Eco's book was The Name of the Rose and Saylor has adopted the title Roma Sub Rosa for his Gordianus oeuvre. Coincidence?)

A friend introduced me to Saylor's work, having noticed that I was slogging through Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series of historical novels (the set that begins with First Man in Rome). Each book is the size of a brick, but I enjoy McCullough's skillful use of authentic—or, at least, authentic-seeming—detail to flesh out the characters and their situations. My friend suggested that Saylor would provide a less turgid counterpoint to McCullough, since his novels spanned the same historical era, but with greater focus and more economy of expression. That is, they're shorter!

When I expressed an interest in reading Saylor's work, my friend promptly bestowed on me a bag containing the first handful of Gordianus novels. Since then, I've been alternating between McCullough's weighty tomes and Saylor's sprightly novels. Both series suit me, although in different ways. I face the happy prospect of having plenty of engrossing reading stacked up for the less hectic days of summer.

At the end of Arms of Nemesis, the novel concerning a murder investigation by Gordianus during the time of Spartacus and the great slave revolt, I found that Saylor had appended a historical note. It included Saylor's observations concerning the lamentable condition of public libraries.
A library figures prominently in this novel—the library of Lucius Licinius is the scene of the murder. In the here and now, it is libraries which are being killed—cut back, shut down, dismantled and dispersed, book by book and dollar by dollar. Yet without them, I could hardly have done my research.
After reading Saylor's words, I immediately closed the book and looked at its exterior. My borrowed book was clearly marked with a red stamp identifying it as a library discard. It was, in fact, the Manor Branch of the San Leandro Public Library that decided it had to discard its signed copy of Saylor's Arms of Nemesis. The current owner had picked it up as a used book.

Yes, it was a bit ironic. I promptly visited Steven Saylor's website and dropped him a note. He soon replied. “Thanks for the story: the journey of a single book. (If only that copy could talk!)”

He added, by the way, that Gordianus the Finder is still at work. The Triumph of Caesar is scheduled for a May 2008 publication. You'll be able to find it in your local bookstores and—if you still have one—just maybe in your local library. For a while.

1 comment:

ArtK said...

I have to say that I tried one of Saylor's books (don't recall the title), and didn't enjoy it too much. I thought that he was very plodding and obvious with the Roman history and culture. Things like carefully defining what faces were. My preference is for more subtlety.

Have you read any of Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco stories -- I like these very much, in part because she handles the history and culture well, and in part because the stories are in the hard-boiled genre and I'm a big fan of Hammet and Chandler.