DEATH IN THE ASHES
By Albert A. Bell, Jr.
Perseverance Press, September, 2013 (trade paperback, $15.95)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
Those who've read my mystery reviews know that I don't ascribe to the high-schoolish "book report" format, where the plot is simply summarized and given a final rating. Instead, I prefer the New Yorker-type essay mode, where the novel under review acts as a kickoff point to allow glimpses into technique, literary theory, and other ancillary matters. That way I can talk about the book without spoilers or bland synopses, to entertain as well as introduce the novel. And so, for Mr. Bell's excellent DEATH IN THE ASHES, I'd like to discuss specialized environments and historic eras in fiction.
Historical fiction has certain unique challenges that are similar to fiction that is centered in an environment unfamiliar to the average reader. In each case the author must describe the surroundings so as to acquaint the audience with the locale, historic time period, or a profession and its specialized vocabulary.
For example, if the story is about a submarine crew, Antarctic explorers, or offshore oil workers, the writer is obliged to provide sufficient background about these unique occupations to make the story seem logical and factually secure. I faced this problem when I used NASA's Johnson Spaceflight Facility as one setting in my novel Blood Spiral. I simply had my private detective protagonist take a personalized tour, where specifics were explained to him, and of course, to the readers as well.
The same problem exists for period novels that occur in perhaps the Renaissance, the Napoleonic era, and, in the case of DEATH IN THE ASHES, first century Rome.
This is considerably more difficult than might first appear, because the book can quickly become a boring encyclopedic litany of historic trivia, or conversely, be so thin on necessary facts that the reader is soon lost and rudderless.
Aspiring novelists who wish to set their story lines within a certain historic time frame need to study the revelatory techniques in a book like Mr. Bell's DEATH IN THE ASHES, where they'll find an excellent template.
Pliny the Younger is a wealthy young Roman aristocrat in the 80s AD who often acts as a "defense consultant" in difficult cases before ruling authorities. Attorneys per se didn't exist. Litigation between parties was presented in the Forum and argued by advocates such as Pliny, orators who were able to declaim the client's case with great rhetorical skill. Audiences were paid to cheer or boo on cue, so as to better sway the court's decision. Not a perfect system but it sure beat a bloody duel in a back alley.
Pliny receives a messenger bearing bad news. An old family friend who lives in the Bay of Naples has been accused of murder, of stabbing to death one of his freed servants. The accused man's wife begs Pliny to help defend him.
Pliny is greatly reluctant to venture back to the area, near where Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii just four years prior, because the memories of a disastrous encounter still haunt him. Nevertheless he accepts the friend's defense and travels to the Naples area to offer his help.
The characters are superbly drawn, and appear to us as human and realistic. The surroundings of Rome and later, the Naples area, are also carefully described, but not to the stupefying degree that I term "Travelogue Trauma," instead nicely balanced with the general pacing of the story. And as someone who's made a considerable study of Roman history, I can attest that the historic details are accurate and coherent within the novel's scope.
The story line and plot elements are also realistic and aren't contrived or "pushed" just to make the mystery more twisty. This is a fine, well crafted, and entertaining read.
What excels in DEATH IN THE ASHES, however, is the way in which Mr. Bell handles the task of educating us about first century Rome. His task is even more difficult because the novel is first person, where all we know comes solely from Pliny's narration, with no omniscient third person lecturing about the culture, mores, and details needed to understand the setting. The entire burden is upon Pliny's observations and reflections that are filtered to us through his eyes.
Such a process could easily bog down in endless sidebar commentary about small details of Roman life, or just as easily leave the reader clueless as to specific phrases or terms that hold the story together. Happily, neither has occurred. Mr. Bell navigates skillfully between the Scylla and Charybdis of these extremes, and brings the reader safely through the straits. Fans of historical fiction, particularly of the Roman era, will thoroughly enjoy this novel.
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