I am a big fan of Paul Doherty's medieval mysteries, but this series, set in Rome in the time of Constantine, the first Emperor to make the revolutionary decision to recognise Christianity as a (if not the) state religion, is something different. Well, not all that different, really. Just a different setting, and one he is not quite so at home in. But that doesn't stop him making a great success of it.
These are my impressions of the first two in the series, Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator.
I discovered – why am I not surprised? – that the instigator of this revolution was not so much Constantine himself (Doherty's Constantine is little more than a glorified gladiator) as the great woman behind the great man. In this case, his mother, Helena.
Helena was (according to one story at least) an inn-keeper's daughter from York, in England, where Constantine himself was first proclaimed Emperor, and where an imposing statue of him still dominates the square outside York Minster.
And revolution it was. In a few short years – five or so – Christianity went from being the object of a brutal mass persecution under Diocletian with hundreds being slaughtered in the amphitheatre in Rome and all over the Empire, to being, under Constantine, by far the most respected and widely practised and influential religion.
A position it never subsequently lost.
But such radical changes do not come about easily.
A lot of people, including many patricians, dreamt of putting back the clock. Some did more than dream of doing so. And putting back the clock meant getting rid of his "bitch", "witch" – you name it – of a mother. Constantine was unconcerned, relying on the fact that the army adored him. His mother knew better: when the assassination attempt took place, the army would not be there. So she ran a network of secret agents, her spies. One such agente in rebus politicis was Claudia, Helena's "little mouse", who could go anywhere, watching and listening, and no one even noticed her.
In the first of these stories, three courtesans from the household of Domitilla (a de luxe brothel) are murdered. As Domitilla is by appointment purveyor of prostitutes to the Emperor, and as all three had recently serviced him, Helena finds it more than a little disturbing when they are discovered strangled, one after the other, each with the Cross of Christ cut into her forehead and both cheeks. Is the serial killer out to discredit Constantine or the Christian religion? Both, she and Claudia decide.
But then it transpires that a professional assassin known as the Sicarius, whose services Helena herself once made use of, may be killing the girls. In which case, it is aimed at her as much as her son, because after using the assassin she had him permanently silenced. Or she thought she did. Clearly the wrong man was disposed of. But the right man knew about it.
And Claudia? The little mouse who can go anywhere unremarked and unremembered? She has her own agenda. A couple of years earlier her simpleton brother had been murdered and she herself raped by a man with a chalice tattooed on his wrist. Her own personal overriding objective is to find and kill him.
This subplot surfaces again in the second book, The Song of the Gladiator.