Back in the Rome of mother's-boy Emperor Constantine again, and again it is that mother, Helena, who takes control when things start to get out of hand. And once more it is Claudia to whom she turns when an investigation calls for discretion combined with a sharp eye and an even sharper brain. For Claudia is Helena's "little mouse", one – perhaps the only one – of her network of secret agents and spies who can go anywhere unremarked and unremembered, for no one even notices her.
As I said in my review of "Murder Imperial" and "The Song of the Gladiator", these are enthralling stories set in a fascinating period of history. Though no one at the time realised it, these dozen or so years before Constantine and Helena quit Rome and moved the whole caboodle to Byzantium and established the new imperial city of Constantinople (the New Rome!), were the final years of the eight centuries of Roman hegemony and civilisation. After that, for a thousand years, the Popes ruled Rome and the West.
Now, though, in AD 314, many if not most people are still not even nominally Christian; gladiatorial games are still held in the Colosseum, and a champion gladiator, Murranus, is the hero of the story. Or at any rate, is the heroine's sports-star boyfriend, for the real hero is one-time actress Claudia, now special agent and investigator to the Empress. It is she who must investigate when the sons and daughters of the super-rich are being kidnapped and held to ransom, and when a series of veteran soldiers are brutally murdered. Is there any connection between these killings and the fact that they served together eighteen years previously on Hadrian's Wall at a time when civil unrest within the empire was causing a breakdown of defences in such far-flung outposts and that they all took part in a massacre of Picts at a fort on Hadrian's Wall in the north of Britain, and the torture and slaughter of the Pictish chieftain and his young son.? It seems there may be, because the gruesome way they are being killed and their corpses mutilated is an exact replica of what the Picts did to their enemies in a blood-feud.
But before things get better, they always get worse – much worse in a Paul Doherty story! More people die, and Murranus, the champion gladiator Claudia believes to have retired and plans to marry, finds himself back in the arena.
A great story set very plausibly in a period of tumult and change and filled with colourful and unforgettable characters, not least of whom is the "Queen of the Night" of the title - who is not Claudia, and nor is it – as one might expect – Helena. The "Queen of the Night" is Cassia, a stunningly beautiful deaf-mute ex-courtesan who, like Helena herself, hails from distant Britain, and is always there in the background accompanied by her companion Laertus, the effeminate eunuch who shares a sign language with her and communicates with others on her behalf.
I like Claudia, and find myself identifying with her completely. So completely I begin to wonder whether I lived one of my previous lives in Rome during that period. But really good historical novels always do that to me!