Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Vita Brevis"

Ruth Downie is the author of a series of mysteries featuring Roman Army medic and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso: Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, Tabula Rasa, and the newly released Vita Brevis.

Downie applied the Page 69 Test to Vita Brevis and reported the following:
From page 69:
Balbus raised the bottle, tipped it sideways, and watched the liquid level itself out.

“Sir, about Doctor Kleitos—”

“No sign of him, I suppose?”

“No, sir. But there’s a problem at the surgery. There was this barrel—”

“Talk to Firmicus.” Balbus winced as his fingers met the hot glass, then he twisted out the stopper and sniffed. Ruso was struck by the absurd notion that he could be handing over a poison in the guise of medicine. His patient was right: he was nervous. Ever since he had realized what was in the barrel, Be careful who you trust had taken on a sinister new significance.
By a happy coincidence, Page 69 holds a crucial turning-point in Vita Brevis—much of what happens later depends on this moment. But it makes little sense by itself, so here’s the background:

Ruso has just taken over a medical practice in Rome from the suddenly-departed Doctor Kleitos, who was supplying regular ‘just in case’ antidote medicine to wealthy landlord Balbus. Balbus is convinced that enemies—real or imagined—are trying to poison him. Now the supply of antidote has run out, and Kleitos has left no record of what was in it.

Ruso doesn’t know much about antidotes, but he does know that his patron wants him to make a good impression on Balbus. So he’s offered to cook up a harmless substitute, hoping to fool Balbus’s enemies into thinking he’s still invulnerable—at least until Ruso can track down Kleitos and ask what was in the original bottle.

Ruso’s cooking, however, has just been seriously disrupted by the discovery of a dead man in a barrel outside his front door. With this and the cryptic warning from Kleitos’s hand-over note now looming large in his mind, he can’t remember exactly what he’s put in the medicine. And when he does remember, it won’t be a great comfort to him.

Researching Vita Brevis was a delight. Many medics in the ancient world were highly skilled and—like Ruso—eager to do their best for their patients. Some of their surgical techniques were still in use centuries later. But anyone could claim to be a doctor, and in a society where human dissection was forbidden and scientific method seems rarely to have been valued above dogma and philosophy, the sick were at the mercy of the superstitious and the dangerously ignorant. I’ve slipped one or two of their more entertaining claims into the book, but didn’t have room for Pliny’s odd assertion that women have fewer teeth than men. (And no, I don’t know why he didn’t resort to the simple expedient of counting them.)

In the light of the risks involved, it’s not surprising that many patients referred themselves to the shrine of Aesculapius, where they hoped to receive healing in dreams. But if the gods failed, only the medics remained. And that’s when one of Pliny’s other assertions comes into play. Is it really true that “only a doctor can kill a man with complete impunity?”
Learn more about the book and author at Ruth Downie's website.

The Page 69 Test: Caveat Emptor.

The Page 69 Test: Tabula Rasa.

Writers Read: Ruth Downie.

--Marshal Zeringue