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Vita Brevis: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire

Vita Brevis: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire

4.5 2
by Ruth Downie

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"The seventh adventure for Downie's physician hero masterfully draws out its suspense, painting a vivid portrait of ancient Rome that feels persuasive and authentic." -Kirkus Reviews

Ruso and Tilla and their new baby daughter have left Roman-occupied Britain--and the military--for Rome at the urging of Ruso's patron, Accius. Their excitement upon


"The seventh adventure for Downie's physician hero masterfully draws out its suspense, painting a vivid portrait of ancient Rome that feels persuasive and authentic." -Kirkus Reviews

Ruso and Tilla and their new baby daughter have left Roman-occupied Britain--and the military--for Rome at the urging of Ruso's patron, Accius. Their excitement upon arriving is soon dulled by the discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements. There are also far too many doctors--some skilled, but others positively dangerous.

Ruso thinks he has been offered a reputable medical practice only to find that his predecessor, Doctor Kleitos, has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and the warning, "Be careful who you trust." Distracted by the body and his efforts to help Accius win the hand of a rich young heiress, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question both his competence and his integrity.

With Ruso's reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family from Doctor Kleitos's debt collectors and find allies in their new home while they track down the vanished doctor and find out the truth about the unfortunate man in the barrel.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Downie writes with her usual humor and depth . . . Perfect for fans of the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, this entertaining New York Times best-selling series and its endearing characters deserve as long a run." - Booklist

"The seventh adventure for Downie's physician hero (Tabula Rasa, 2014, etc.) masterfully draws out its suspense, painting a vivid portrait of ancient Rome that feels persuasive and authentic." - Kirkus Reviews

"Downie’s plotting is as engaging as ever, as she weaves the threads of a murder mystery into the very character-driven story of Ruso and Tilla. While marital strife under the pressures of a new home and a new baby in the household could have proven tedious, these two characters and their relationship are so charmingly portrayed that every domestic scene seems of a piece. The tension between Tilla’s rebellious nature and the ideal of a ‘Good Roman Wife,’ and the tension between Ruso’s outer gruffness and inner integrity make this Medicus installment much more than a mystery novel." - Historical Novel Society

"Ruth Downie's books about second-century AD Roman Army doctor Ruso and his British wife Tilla, herself a healer and midwife, are among my favourite of all historical crime series. There is a confident, unforced authenticity to the writing which makes the reader feel like a time traveller." - Mat Coward, Morning Star (UK)

"Since Lindsey Davis first began her Falco series, a number of authors have attempted to infiltrate the ancient Roman mystery subgenre . . . but only Ruth Downie has managed it with her own distinctive panache." - History Buff

"Vita Brevis is crammed with pithy characterisation (notably the intuitive Ruso), mordant humour and beautifully integrated historical detail." - Financial Times

"A deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end, Vita Brevis clearly establishes author Ruth Downie as a consummate and accomplished master of historical crime fiction . . . Very highly recommended." - Midwest Book Review

"A Ruth Downie novel offers many pleasures, not least of them the humorously conflicted marriage between Roman citizen Ruso and the Briton Tilla . . . but where Vita Brevis really scores is in its contemporary resonances with Ruso and Tilla’s immigrant experience . . . Meticulously researched, the Ruso novels are historical mysteries to rank alongside those of Lindsey Davis." - Irish Times

Publishers Weekly
Downie’s uneven seventh Gaius Ruso mystery (after 2014’s Tabula Rasa) takes the former medical officer; his wife, Tilla; and their infant daughter, Mara, from second-century Britannia to Rome to start a new life. Things don’t get off to a good start. Their accommodations are vermin-infested, and the doctor, Kleitos, who was to send Ruso some patients, isn’t home when Ruso calls on him. Then Ruso gets a note from Kleitos, explaining that he is going to be out of town for a bit and inviting Ruso to take over both his house and practice. Hope turns to disappointment after Ruso learns that Kleitos has taken all his medical supplies with him. Meanwhile, a smelly barrel dumped in front of Kleitos’s door turns out to contain the corpse of an unidentified man, which doesn’t inspire confidence among prospective patients. Downie’s trademark humor is in evidence, but her superior plotting skills aren’t, in an entry that downplays the historical background. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (July)
Library Journal
Life is short and sometimes ends violently, as medical doctor Gaius Ruso knows full well. In this seventh installment (after Tabula Rasa) of the "Medicus" series, Ruso, wife Tilla, and baby Mara have journeyed to Rome, at the invitation of Accius, a former legionary tribune. Yet all they discover is a stuffy room in a roach-infested tenement. Through a series of dubious events, Ruso obtains employment and much better living conditions—if he can keep his employer alive, solve the mystery of where the previous doctor has gone, and protect his family. The plot of this mystery has so many twists and turns that sometimes it's as difficult for readers to keep events straight as for Ruso; in the end, not every question gets a satisfactory answer. Ruso keeps moving forward, though—and so will the reader. VERDICT Series fans will enjoy this title, but new readers and devotees of historical fiction about the Roman Empire are well advised to start with the first book, Medicus. [See Prepub Alert, 2/1/16.]—Pamela O'Sullivan, Coll. at Brockport Lib., SUNY
Kirkus Reviews
An idealistic doctor who moves to the big city with his family finds a nest of corruption—and corpses—literally on their doorstep.Now that it's C.E. 122 in Imperial Rome, physician Gaius Petreius Ruso is starting a new chapter in his life, moving from Britannia with his wife, Tilla, and their young adopted daughter, Mara. The trip has been arduous, with Metellus, a longtime antagonist of Ruso, popping up in Rome to insult Tilla and Mara. Ruso is set to take over the medical practice of the venerable physician Kleitos, but when they arrive at the older man's home, the door is locked, and when they get inside they find the furniture, including Kleitos' medical items, missing. On the porch sits a big barrel. Opening it with difficulty, Ruso finds a corpse inside. Nevertheless, he begins seeing patients even as he turns some attention to solving the dual mysteries of the corpse and his predecessor's disappearance. Helping not one iota is wealthy Accius, Kleitos' patron, who peppers Ruso with annoying questions and dire reports of local unrest. He finds the locals similarly prickly, and Tilla fares no better in Rome's rough streets, though a resourceful new servant girl named Narina proves an invaluable ally. The couple's exploration of this alien city becomes the reader's tutorial as well. They begin to feel that they are under siege. Could the unexpected death of their landlord, Horatius Balbus, be connected to these other mysteries? The seventh adventure for Downie's physician hero (Tabula Rasa, 2014, etc.) masterfully draws out its suspense, painting a vivid portrait of ancient Rome that feels persuasive and authentic.

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Medicus Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

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Meet the Author

Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon, England.

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Vita Brevis: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing how much trouble Ruso can get into in a few days & after 6 previous books not have learned to avoid blundering about like an amateur. Maybe he should take a few lessions from Falco.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
VITA BREVIS (Latin for “life is short”) is the seventh book in Ruth Downie’s “Medicus” series, featuring doctor/sleuth Gaius Ruso. As you might have guessed, the series is set in the days of the Roman Empire. This particular story takes place in Rome, the year being 123 A.D. I have not read any of the previous books in the series, so for the first few chapters, not only was I following the story, but I was acclimatizing to the setting, and getting acquainted with the characters. Some, if not most, seem to be regulars. Thankfully, Ruth made this fairly painless, providing sufficient background so a newbie like me could quickly assess how each character stood in relation to our hero, without getting bogged down in re-telling the previous six novels. It seems our hero, Gaius Ruso, has been in Britannia and has moved his wife and newborn to Rome at the invitation of Accius. Accius is a former legionary tribune, and now head of the Department of Street Cleaning, a man of some stature. Ruso isn’t sure exactly why he is in Rome, until it comes to light that one of the city’s doctors has gone missing. The doctor’s patron, Horatius Balbus, a prominent property owner and developer, employs Ruso to take his place until he should return. Ruso and his family move into the doctor’s house, which has recently acquired a barrel outside the door. To his wife’s consternation, the barrel contains a dead body. Having dead bodies outside your door is not the best way to establish a reputation as a trusted medical practitioner, so Ruso, encouraged by Accius and Balbus, starts to look into where the body came from, and what happened to the previous doctor. In doing so, he opens a can of worms that puts himself and his family in danger from some powerful people. Ruth manages to drop you into the ancient world without making you feel like you’re reading a textbook. All the details are there, food, smells, customs, and dress, but they are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative. Some of these details were quite fascinating, including the medical remedies Ruso uses, as well as the whole issue of medical ethics, which plays a strong part in this particular story. Ruso and his wife, Tilla, pick up a couple of British slaves, and it’s interesting to see the way they are treated. One of the slaves, Esico, comes across at first as a disgruntled young man who could be a bit of a handful, yet I grew to like him as a character. The fact that Ruso’s wife is also originally from Britannia, and, it seems, a former slave, adds to the family dynamics. She can relate to their new slaves, and, in fact, they provide her with a comforting reminder of home so far away from her homeland. And yet, as the mistress of the house, she needs to remember her station and theirs. But the story comes first, and I like the way Downie keeps the various plot strands moving, whether it’s the hunt for the missing doctor, or trying to resolve Accius’s love life, or dealing with the neighbors and their wagging tongues, and the followers of Christus and their illegal meetings upstairs. I give VITA BREVIS an easy five stars. There’s some mild profanity, but nothing that would put it beyond a PG-15, maybe even as low as a PG-13. If you like historical fiction, I’d recommend this book, and possibly the series, though I need to go back read the previous six novels before I can say that with certainty. And given as much as I enjoyed this novel, I will be doing just that.