Ruth Downie is the author of the new mystery novel Memento Mori, the latest in her Gaius Ruso series set during the Roman Empire. The series also includes Vita Brevis and Tabula Rasa. She lives in Devon, England.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Memento Mori?
A: The hot springs at Bath – Aquae Sulis to the Romans – are a wonderful place to visit and I’ve wanted to set a book there for years. It was just a case of finding a story.
Initially I thought I’d base the murder mystery on the curses that angry visitors dropped into the spring in Roman times. Then I looked closer and realised there must have been much more going on in Aquae Sulis in terms of religion, politics and power, not to mention some very impressive water engineering. So in the end, the curses only formed a part of the story.
The sacred spring had to be central, though: the hot waters were the reason for the town’s existence, so it seemed a good idea to throw everyone into crisis by desecrating the spring with a murder.
Q: Did you know from the beginning that you'd be writing a series about your characters Ruso and Tilla?
A: Not at all! They were background characters in something else I was trying to write. They were only dragged into the daylight so that I could enter a “Start a Historical Romance” competition for the Historical Novel Society. I was incredibly lucky when an agent spotted the story in the Society’s magazine, and got in touch.
Ruso and Tilla’s story was only intended to run for three chapters. Maybe that’s why they took on a life of their own. When you’re only expecting to write the beginning of something, you can take all sorts of risks that you might not take if you were facing the challenge of a full-length novel.
Q: What kind of research have you done as you've worked on the series, and is there anything you've learned that's particularly surprised you?
A: A combination of enthusiasm and ignorance meant my research was incredibly inefficient. I just started in the local library and followed up whatever took my fancy.
That included an archaeology evening class, which led to a decade of summers as part of a team excavating a Roman villa—not to mention my present inability to pass a hole in the ground without peering into it.
Visiting ancient sites and museums is always a joy, and re-enactors are full of fascinating insights (apparently if you spend long days in heavy Roman armour you really need a good stretch and regular massage – is that one of the reasons forts have bath-houses?).
My British ancestors would probably laugh at my efforts to spin, weave, dye with woad and milk a goat, but my respect for them has increased hugely with my understanding of how skilled they must have been.
I was also surprised by the meticulous nature of Roman army records – one of the documents found by archaeologists near Hadrian’s Wall is a detailed list of how many chickens and geese were eaten at meals in the Commanding Officer’s house over a period of two years. I’ve worked in several large hierarchical organizations myself, and when I read that I suddenly felt very much at home.
As for Ruso’s medical practice – a surprising number of medical textbooks survive from the ancient world.
It’s easy to mock suggestions that ear-ache should be treated with boiled cockroaches, or that an attack of malaria can be warded off by swallowing bed-bugs placed inside beans – but some of the techniques used by surgeons in the classical world are so good they were still in use in the First World War. Maybe the main thing I’ve learned from research is a little humility!
Q: This is your eighth Gaius Ruso mystery novel. How do you think your main characters have changed over the course of the series?
A: Ruso and Tilla come from very different backgrounds. He’s a Roman citizen who’s served as a medic with the Legions: she’s from one of the defeated tribes of occupied Britannia, an island where it was possible for a woman to rise to a position of real power.
In the course of the series they’ve learned each other’s languages, which in some ways offers less opportunity for comedy, but I think that joke would have worn thin over eight novels anyway.
They’ve also met each other’s families – a challenge that’s given them both some understanding of why their views on life are so different. But living together successfully has involved compromise, and now some of their own people on both sides view them with suspicion.
Ruso and Tilla have also – by popular request - acquired a baby. Little Mara is a delight for them but a challenge for me, because nobody wants to read long tracts about babysitting. I was just as relieved as Tilla when they also acquired a babyminder.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve just finished a novella featuring Ruso and Tilla, although I’m not sure yet what will happen to it. Now I’m taking time to look around, breathe deeply and recharge the batteries.
I’m doing a lot of reading about Victorian Britain, and it’s interesting to see how the rapidly-expanding Victorian London faced similar challenges to the crowded streets of ancient Rome. I’ve no notion where all this will lead. As you’ll have gathered, I’m not a planner.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Visitors to Bath might want to know that after a busy day of sightseeing around the Roman remains the rooftop pool of the nearby Thermae Spa is the perfect place to bathe like a Roman while you watch the sun go down over the city.
To read the first chapters of Memento Mori, look here.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb