Book Review: Bruce Macbain’s The Bull Slayer

Posted February 27, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Bruce Macbain’s The Bull Slayer

The Bull Slayer


Bruce Macbain

that was published by Poisoned Pen Press on March 3, 2013 and has 285 pages.

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Second in the Plinius Secundus historical mystery series set in the time of ancient Rome (111-ish AD) with a fifty-year-old Pliny the Younger. This story takes place in the province of Bithynia on the shores of the Black Sea.

This is a story ARC I received from the publisher.

My Take

I had been looking forward to this as I do enjoy historical mysteries, unfortunately, this one was more hysterical in its clumsy and obvious execution. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Macbain’s research is amazing and made me feel as though I was there in Nicomedia. But, oh lord, the detail and clews laid out in the investigation were amateurish, and the melodrama was overwhelming. I felt like I was reading a bad soap opera.

The prologue was a reasonable start if obvious, but then Macbain doesn’t go anywhere with it. It all flops over to the Roman side with Pliny, leaving it until Pliny finally starts to make real progress in his investigation before pulling the prologue’s participants back into the story. I did like that Macbain’s protagonist is not a muscle-bound hunk and had a modest demeanor, but I always thought of Pliny as being a much more intelligent man. Not this excuse for a “detective”.

Oh, please, Suetonius’ idea of writing the “mystery” when they solve it? “Laundering money”? Then Calpurnia’s sudden breakdown in front of Pancrates? They know there’s all this corruption, and no one thinks to put a guard on the likely suspects?

Too funny, Macbain provides the true thoughts of the conquered even as they kowtow to the new governor.

I love that Pliny writes Calpurnia “love letters that made her blush”, and I like both Pliny and Calpurnia for their compassion for others.

Explain why Balbus would get “no toga, no laurel wreath, no coin in the mouth”??

It’s sad: technology may advance, but man’s greed remains the same.

The Story

By command of the Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger sets sail for Nicomeda, the capital of Bithynia-Pontus to clean up the corruption plaguing the area, for Trajan needs a reliable province from which to lead his attack.

There have been seven governors before Pliny and each has been more corrupt than his successor. Meanwhile, the countryside is awash in unfinished civic projects with a hostile — and troublesome — populace.

The Characters

Gaius Plinius Secundus, a.k.a., Pliny the Younger, is the new governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus. Calpurnia is his young, artist wife, still in awe of being married to so imposing a man: a Roman senator, a lawyer, the nephew of Pliny the Elder, and a confidante of the emperor. The sober, talented Zosimus is Pliny’s secretary, a freedman, and his friend. The vivacious Ione, Calpurnia’s maid, is Zosimus’ wife, also a freedwoman. Four-year-old Rufus is Zosimus and Ione’s son.

Members of Pliny’s staff include:
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, one of Pliny’s protégés, is constantly writing monographs, biographies, etc. Postumius Marinus is Pliny’s doctor, having trained in the Ludus Magnus. I do like the doctor! The precise and observant Caelianus is Pliny’s chief clerk; Fannia is his wife and Calpurnia’s rather useless ally. Galeo is his senior lictor. Aquila is his chief centurion. The scarred, lame Nymphidius has come out of retirement to be his staff officer; Faustilla is his wife, a ribald old lady. Faustia and the clumsy Memmia are wives of Pliny’s staff officers. Cassia is an engineer’s wife.

The Worshippers of Mithras
Barzanes, a Persian, is the high priest of Mithras, owning a square mile of land in the hills. The Sun-Runner is the Father’s second-in-command, followed by the Lion, the Persian, and the bridegroom with Ravens the lowest ranked.

The Romans
Marcus Vibius Balbus is the fiscal procurator of the province and a bully. He was one of the Praetorian Guard that night 14 years ago that Pliny still fears. The implacable Fabia is his wife. Aulus is their son who suffers the Sacred Disease. Silvanus is his chief accountant. Lurco is Fabia’s powerful slave.

Atilia is the fat wife of a Roman businessman

The Angry Greeks
The wealthy, egotistical Diocles the Golden Mouth is famous as an orator, a former archon, a member of the city council, and quite eager to verbally attack Pliny. Timotheus is the Greek tutor Diocles has found for Calpurnia. I would have thought she’d have been smarter after fourteen years in Rome with all the plots and backbiting… Pancrates is a scam artist, hailed as a god, the Oracle of Asclepius, with his paid “ears” in every household. Agathan is a young wealthy man with an artist’s eye, interested only in his own pleasures. Baucis is Agathon’s housekeeper, who tries to warn Ione. Sophronia owns a high-end brothel, the Elysium, the profits of which Argyrus, her half-brother, plunders. Byzus is her accountant. Glaucon is a wealthy, weak-minded provincial eager to prove his competence to his brother, Theron. Didymus is a banker.

Arasmes is the elderly Persian who serves as their spokesman. Anicius is the last incompetent governor and a friend of Pliny’s.

The Cover and Title

The cover is fabulous! I love the ancient battle scene at the top that begins to fall away as mosaic tiles onto the statue of Mithras killing the bull. Beautiful gold and orange tones tempered by the blue.

The title reflects how the god Mithras is depicted, as The Bull Slayer. Then again, it could be a metaphor for Pliny’s actions…hmmm…