The Austin Chronicle

Steven Saylor's Ancient Habit

By Clay Smith, May 24, 2002, Books

Two years ago, Simon & Schuster published Steven Saylor's mystery A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry, which took Austin's Servant Girl Annihilator murders of the 1880s and re-imagined them in a historically accurate but particularly ingenious fashion while throwing the young Texas dandy O. Henry into the mix (a mix of bloody axes and Guy Town whores, for starters). It was the first time that some mystery readers had come across Saylor because the name "Saylor" usually appears on book jackets above titles like Roman Blood and A Murder on the Appian Way. Hopefully Saylor's successful leap into the 19th century prompted his readers to join him in ancient Rome, where the great majority of his mysteries are set. Mysteries set in ancient Rome: The concept seems a little freaky, maybe too nerdy to be entirely tasteful and legit, but those who pass over Saylor's Roman books are missing out on one of the best mystery series being published today. Saylor's ability to make readers feel as if they are "rubbing elbows with the ancients" is "quite uncanny," as The New York Times Book Review has observed, and although Saylor's mastery of Roman history is clearly prodigious, his mysteries bear no trace of historical showmanship or pedantry. His sleuth, Gordianus the Finder, is an utterly fascinating and mysterious figure, a shadowy intimate of Cicero and Caesar who, as his regular order of business, investigates the lowlifes untouchable by those noblemen.

A Mist of Prophecies (St. Martin's, $24.95), the ninth and latest entry in Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series, is about the strange and seemingly untraceable life of Cassandra, a woman with no known past or family (a decided disadvantage in ancient Rome) who had the envied but nonetheless unfortunate ability to see into the future (and to foresee her own death -- by poisoning). She's dead on page one of this compelling book, which takes place in 48 B.C. during the height of the Roman Civil War, as Caesar and Pompey are waging their turf war to decide who will control Rome. A pitch-perfect work like A Mist of Prophecies is what you get when an author has spent as much time as Saylor has honing the voice of his sleuth and re-creating a world usually elucidated in textbooks rather than this gripping prose.

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