Medicus (Gaius Petreius Ruso Series #1)

Medicus (Gaius Petreius Ruso Series #1)

3.7 121
by Ruth Downie, Simon Vance

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Gaius Petrius Ruso, a down-on-his-luck army doctor, succumbs to a moment of weakness and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner. Now he has a slave who won't talk, can't cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the… See more details below


Gaius Petrius Ruso, a down-on-his-luck army doctor, succumbs to a moment of weakness and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner. Now he has a slave who won't talk, can't cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the local bar. Now Ruso must summon all his forensic knowledge to find a killer who may be after him next.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The salacious underside of Roman-occupied Britain comes to life in Britisher Downie's debut. Gaius Petrius Ruso, a military medicus (or doctor), transfers to the 20th Legion in the remote Britannia port of Deva (now Chester) to start over after a ruinous divorce and his father's death. Things go downhill from there. His quarters are filthy and vermin-filled, and his superior at the hospital is a petty tyrant. Gaius rescues and buys an injured slave girl, Tilla, from her abusive master, but she refuses to talk, can't cook and costs more to keep than he can afford. Meanwhile, young women from the local bordello keep turning up dead, and nobody is interested in investigating. Gaius becomes a reluctant detective, but his sleuthing threatens to get him killed and leaves him scant time to work on the first-aid guide he's writing to help salvage his finances. Tilla plots her escape as she recovers from her injuries, and just when Ruso becomes attached to her, she runs away, complicating his personal life and his investigation. Downie's auspicious debut sparkles with beguiling characters and a vividly imagined evocation of a hazy frontier. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Is it a mystery? Is it historical fiction? Or is it simply a good novel that uses suspicious death-two working girls have disappeared from Merula's bar-and an antique setting-the Romans have conquered Britannia, where our doctor hero serves at an army outpost-to explore loyalty, compassion, and the ticklish relationship between the powerful and the powerless. Though he once saved the emperor's life, Gaius Petrius Ruso is now stuck in humble digs at the northernmost rim of the empire, divorced from a shrewish wife and trying to save enough money to cover embarrassing debts accumulated by his scheming father, now deceased. Then he intervenes to help a slave girl with a broken arm and ends up buying her. He nurses her back to health and eventually boards her at Merula's, thus getting himself involved in the case of the two missing prostitutes, which leads to corruption in high places (where else?). The plot is suspenseful and fluidly told, but the evolving bond between master and servant is at the heart of this excellent first work, as Downie carefully details the pained conscience of the former and the latter's sorrow that both her family and her country have been ravaged. It's no surprise that Downie won the Fay Weldon section of BBC3's End of Story competition. Highly recommended.-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dark doings in Roman-occupied "Britannia" are investigated in this nifty historical mystery, the award-winning English author's first novel. The title character, Gaius Petreius Ruso, is an army physician attached to a legion based in Deva (later Chester). He's recently divorced, overworked, at constant odds with military authorities and further burdened by demands made by his civilian brother on behalf of their financially strapped family. But these problems are trivial compared with the nightmare that builds from the discovery of a murdered slave girl's body, then the rescue of a girl named Tilla with a broken arm evidently caused by a savage beating, then another female slave's dead body. Ruso "buys" the uncommunicative Tilla and installs her as his house servant and cook, eventually gleaning from her information that suggests somebody is kidnapping freeborn girls and selling them as slaves. The unusual suspects include bar owner (and probable procurer) Merula, sinister entrepreneur Claudius Innocens (identified, in the amusingly annotated list of "Characters" that precedes the narrative, as "a sleazebag") and Ruso's Uriah Heep-like nemesis, nitpicking hospital administrator Priscus. The mystery is a good one, enriched with enigmatic images and episodes (an "invisible dog" hounding the compound, a suspicious case of food poisoning), and a secondary enigma buried in the identity and nature of the goddess whom Tilla stoically worships. But the real achievement here is the lavishly, often hilariously detailed portrayal of the world that absorbs Ruso's exhausted wits and energies (Downie even manages a few good jokes about English cuisine). And in cheerful mutual insults exchanged betweenRuso and his colleague and rival Valens, we hear again the effervescent voices of M*A*S*H's Hawkeye and Trapper John. And Ruso is a wonderful character, fueled by a dyspeptic machismo and sullen charm reminiscent of Harrison Ford in his heyday. A charming novel.

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Product Details

Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
Gaius Petreius Ruso Series, #1
Edition description:
Unabridged CD
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

MEDICUS A Novel of the Roman Empire
BLOOMSBURY USA Copyright © 2006 Ruth Downie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-427-8

Chapter One Someone had washed the mud off the body, but as Gaius Petreius Ruso unwrapped the sheet, there was still a distinct smell of river water. The assistant wrinkled his nose as he approached with the record tablet and the measuring stick he had been sent to fetch.

"So," said Ruso, flipping the tablet open. "What's the usual procedure here for unidentified bodies?"

The man hesitated. "I don't know, sir. The mortuary assistant's on leave."

"So who are you?"

"The assistant's assistant, sir." The man was staring at the corpse.

"But you have attended a postmortem before?"

Without taking his eyes off the body, the man shook his head. "Are they all like that, sir?"

Ruso, who had started work before it was light, stifled a yawn. "Not where I come from."

The description should come first. Facts before speculation. Except that in this case much of the description was speculation as well.

Female, aged ... He spent some time frowning over that one. Finally he settled on approximately 18-25 years. Average weight. Height ... five feet one inch. At least that was fairly accurate. Hair: red, scant. That too, although it might not be very helpful if no one had ever seen her before without a wig. Clothing: none found. So no help there, then.

Three teeth missing, but not in places that were obvious. Someone would need to know her very well indeed to give a positive identification from that.

Ruso glanced up. "Did you go over to HQ for me?"

"I told them we'd got a body and you'd send the details over later, sir."

"Did you ask about missing persons?"

"Yes, sir. There aren't any."

"Hm." This did not bode well. Ruso continued working his way down the body, making notes as he went. Moments later his search was rewarded. "Ah. Good!"


Ruso pointed to what he had found. "If somebody turns up looking for her in a month's time," he explained, "we'll be able to tell them who we buried." He recorded Strawberry birthmark approximately half an inch long on inside of upper right thigh, eight inches above the knee, and sketched the shape.

When he had completed the description, Ruso scratched one ear and gazed down at the pale figure laid out on the table. He was better acquainted than he wished to be with the dead, but this one was difficult. The water had interfered with all the signals he had learned to look for. There was no settling of the blood to indicate the position in which the body had been left, presumably because it had rolled over on the current. The limbs were flexible, so that meant ... what? Men who died in the stress of battle often froze and then relaxed again much faster than was normal. So if the woman had been frightened or struggling ... On the other hand, how would the aftermath of death be affected by cold water? He scratched his ear again and yawned, trying to think what he could usefully write on the report that would not cause more distress and confusion to the relatives.

Finally he settled on Time of death: uncertain, estimated at least 2 days before discovery and gave his reasons.

He glanced up at the assistant's assistant again. "Can you write legibly?"

"Yes, sir."

He handed the tablet and stylus across the body.

"Place of death," he dictated, then corrected himself. "No, put Location of body."

The man laid the tablet on the end of the table, hunched over it, and repeated, "Location ... of ... body" as he scraped with awkward but determined obedience.

"Found five hundred paces downstream from the pier, in marshes on the north bank," said Ruso, wishing he had carried on writing himself.

"F ... found ... five hundred ..." muttered the man, suddenly breaking off in midsentence to look up and say, "She could have drowned a long way upstream and come down the river, sir. But then, she might have gone in farther along and come up on the tide."

"Pardon?" Ruso blinked, taken aback by this sudden display of initiative.

Moments later it was apparent that although this soldier knew nothing about hospital administration and very little about writing, he had devoted his spare time to learning everything there was to know about the local fishing. The assistant's assistant's detailed description of all possible points of waterborne departure that could end in an arrival in the marshes on the north bank of the River Dee left Ruso baffled, but one thing was clear. In a land where coastlines shifted in and out and rivers flowed backward twice a day, anything that floated could end up a very long way from where it fell into the water.

"Point of entry into water unknown," he dictated.

The man paused. "I didn't get the bit before that, sir." Ruso repeated the location of the body. The man wiped a scrape of wax off the end of the stylus with his forefinger, flicked it away, and began to write.

There was a bird chirping in the hospital garden and a murmur of voices. Ruso glanced out the window. On the far side of the herb beds an amputee practiced with his crutches while orderlies hovered at each elbow, ready to catch him. A soft breeze wafted in, fluttering the lamps that had been placed on slender black stands around the table, burning for the soul of the unknown figure laid out beneath them.

The lamps lurched wildly as the door was flung open. The assistant's assistant looked up and said, "It's not her, Decimus," but the intruder still hurried to the table to look for himself.

Ruso frowned. "Who are you?"

The man clasped both hands together and continued staring at the body.

"Have you lost someone?"

The man swallowed. "No. Not like this, no, sir."

"Then you'd better leave, hadn't you?"

The man backed toward the door. "Right away, sir. Sorry to interrupt, sir. My mistake."

Ruso followed him across the room and barred the door before turning to the assistant. "Is there a missing person that HQ doesn't know about?"

The man shook his head. "Take no notice of Decimus, sir. He's just one of the porters. He's looking for his girlfriend."

"In the mortuary?"

"She ran off with a sailor, sir. Months ago."

"Why look in here, then?"

The man shrugged. "I don't know, sir. Perhaps he's hoping she's come back."

Ruso, not sure if this was an attempt at humor, tried to look the man in the eye, but the attention of the assistant's assistant remained firmly on the writing tablet.

Ruso looked down at the body. "Write, Cause of death."

The stylus began to scratch again. "Cause of ..."

"We'll start from the head down."

"We will start ..."

"No, don't write that."


"Just write Cause of death. Nothing else yet."

He frowned at the girl's head. The fishermen who brought the body in had sworn that they had done nothing to it, but Ruso was at a loss to explain the girl's hair. At first he had thought she was simply unfortunate. Now, on closer examination, he realized the patchy baldness was not natural. He ran one finger across the bristly scalp.

"Is this some sort of a punishment, do you think?"

"Perhaps she cut it off to sell it, sir," suggested the orderly.

"This isn't cut, this is practically shaved."

"Lice, sir?" suggested the orderly, suddenly sounding hopeful. "Maybe she went down to the river to wash out the lice and drowned."

Ruso took a deep breath of fresh air before bending down and holding the lamp closer to the body.

"She didn't drown," he said, lifting the girl's chin with the tip of one finger. "Look."

Chapter Two Ruso was still pondering the body in the mortuary as he walked out of the east gate of the fort. He was barely aware of his progress until he was abruptly recalled to his surroundings by a shout of "Get up!" from farther up the street. A man with a large belly was glaring at a grimy figure lying across the pavement just past the fruit stall. A woman with a shopping basket put down the pear she was examining and turned to see what was going on.

The man repeated the order to "Get up!" The woman stared down at the figure and began to babble in some British dialect. The only word Ruso could make out was "water."

"Burn some feathers under her nose," suggested the stallholder, bending down to retrieve a couple of apples that had tumbled off the edge of his display.

Ruso veered into the street to avoid the commotion and narrowly missed a pile of animal droppings. He frowned. He must try and concentrate on what he was doing. He had come out for a walk because he was unable to sleep. Now that he was walking, he was having trouble staying awake.

At the open shutters of Merula's he ordered the large cup of good wine he had been promising himself for days. When it came it was nothing like the Falernian it was supposed to resemble. He scowled into its clear depths. At that price and in this place, he supposed it was as good as could be expected. In other words, not very good at all.

The doorman watched as he drained the wine without bothering to add any water, and asked him if he would like to meet a pretty girl.

"Not before I've been to the baths," Ruso grunted. "Are you still serving those oysters?"

"Not today, sir."


"I'm sorry, sir ...?"

"So you should be."

Ruso wondered whether to explain that a dish of Merula's marinated oysters was the indirect cause of his present unkempt state and uncertain temper. He decided not to bother.

Yesterday, strapping a poultice around the foot of a groom trampled by his horse, he had composed an imaginary notice for the hospital entrance.

"To all members of XX Legion Valeria Victrix. While the chief medic is on leave, this hospital has three officers. The administrative officer has gone shopping in Viroconium and taken his keys with him. One doctor has severe food poisoning. The other is doing his best, despite having no idea what's going on because he has no time to attend morning briefings. Until reinforcements arrive, nonurgent cases and injuries resulting from drunkenness, stupidity, or arguments with drill instructors will not be treated."

Before the sun had fully risen today he had been presented with a seized back, a dislocated elbow, three teeth in the hand of a man who wanted them replaced, and the body. When he pointed out that the body was beyond his help, he was told that they didn't know what else to do with it.

Mercifully Valens-a paler and thinner version of the Valens who had eaten the oysters-had reported for duty this afternoon. Peering at Ruso, he'd announced, "You look worse than I do. Go and get some rest." Ruso, who had been desperate to sleep for the past three days, suddenly found himself unable to settle down.

A group of youths with army haircuts was sauntering across the street toward Merula's. As they entered Ruso murmured, "Don't touch the seafood." He was gone before they could reply.

Passing the bakery, he realized that he couldn't remember the last time he had eaten. He bought a honey cake and crumbled it against the roof of his mouth as he walked along.

Ahead of him, a chorus of excited voices rose in the street. He recognized the fat man, still shouting orders in a thick Gallic accent. The female who had collapsed had now attracted a sizeable crowd. They seemed to be carrying her to the fountain. Ruso tossed the last fragments of cake to a passing dog and strode on in the direction of the amphitheater. It was nothing to do with him. He was not, at this moment, a doctor. He was a private citizen in need of some bath oil.

He took a deep breath before diving into the perfumed dusk of the oil shop. He had placed his flask on the counter and was naming what he wanted when the shopkeeper's attention was caught by something behind him. The man snatched up a heavy stick and leaped out from behind the counter, yelling, "Clear off!" The dog that had finished Ruso's cake shot out from behind a stack of jars and scuttled off down the street.

The shopkeeper replaced the stick under the counter. "Somebody ought to do something about those dogs."

"Are they dangerous?"

"Only when they bite. Now, what was it you were after?"

Outside, half a dozen pairs of hands were dragging a limp body along the pavement to where the fountain, a large and ugly stone fish, was spewing water into a long rectangular tank.

The shopkeeper glanced up from the jug he was pouring. "Something's going on over there."

Ruso heard a splash as he said, "A woman fainted in the street."

"Oh." The man twisted the stopper into the flask and wiped the side with a cloth. Ruso handed over a sestertius. As the man counted out the change, more people began crowding around the fountain. Voices drifted across the street.

"Get up, you lazy whore!"

"Give her another dunk!"

"If you burn some feathers-"

"Stand her up!"

"Lie her down!"

"Lie her down? She does nothing but lie down!"

Ruso dropped the coins into his purse and emerged into the fresh air. He was not going to offer to help. He had been caught like that before. Poor people, like stray dogs, bred huge litters they couldn't look after and latched on to you with the slightest sign of encouragement. As soon as the whisper went around that some doctor was treating people for free, every case of rotten teeth and rheumatism within a thousand feet would be rounded up and thrust under his nose for inspection. He would be lucky to get away before nightfall.

A voice whispered in his memory-a voice he hadn't heard for almost two years now-a voice accusing him of being cold-hearted and arrogant. He silenced it, as he usually did, by recalling other voices. The Tribune's praise of his "commendable single-mindedness" (of course Valens had to ruin it later by explaining, "He meant you're boring"). Or the officer's wife who had smiled at him over her sprained ankle and said, "You're really quite sweet, Petreius Ruso, aren't you?" That memory would have been more comforting, though, if she hadn't been caught in the bed of the chief centurion a week later and been sent back to Rome in disgrace.

Raising his fingers to sniff the smear of perfumed oil, Gaius Petreius Ruso headed back the way he had come.

The sharp crack of a hand on flesh rang down the street.

"On your feet! Move!"

A pause.

"Throw some more water on her."

A splash. A cry of, "Hey, mind my new shoes!"


Ruso pursed his lips. He should have stayed up at the fort. He could have helped himself to some of Valens's oil and used the hospital baths. Now he would sit in the steam room wondering what had happened to the wretched woman, even though he wasn't responsible for it.

"Wake up, gorgeous!"

More laughter.

If he managed to revive her, those comedians would take the credit.

"Turn her over!"

If he didn't, he would get the blame.

There was a sudden gasp from around the fountain. Someone cried, "Ugh! Look at that!"

A child was pawing at her mother's arm, demanding, "What is it? I can't see! Tell me what it is!"

Ruso hesitated, came to a halt, and promised himself it would only be a quick look.

The military belt was an accessory with magical powers. Several of the onlookers disappeared as soon as it approached. The rest parted to let its wearer through, and Ruso found himself staring down at his second unfortunate female today. This one was a skinny figure lying in a puddle by the fountain. She was still breathing, but she was a mess. The rough gray tunic that covered her was the same color as the bruise under one eye. Blood was oozing from her lower lip and forming a thin red line in the water that still trickled down her face. Her hair was matted and mud-colored. She could have been any age between fifteen and thirty.

"We're giving this girl some water, sir," explained someone with an impressive grasp of understatement.

"She's fainted," added someone else.

"She always faints when there's work to be done," grumbled the man who had been shouting at her. He bent as far down as his belly would allow and yelled in the girl's ear, "Get up!"

"She can't hear you," remarked Ruso evenly. His gaze took in the copper slave band around the girl's upper right arm. Below the elbow, the arm vanished into a swathe of grimy rags. The pale hand emerging at the other end was what had silenced the crowd. It was sticking out at a grotesque and impossible angle. Ruso frowned, unconsciously fingering his own forearm. "What happened to her arm?"

"It wasn't us!" assured a voice in the crowd. "We was only trying to help!"

The grumbler turned his head to one side and spat. "Silly bitch fell down the steps."

"Fell down the steps, sir," corrected Ruso, restraining an urge to seize the man by the ear.


Excerpted from MEDICUS by RUTH DOWNIE Copyright © 2006 by Ruth Downie. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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