Monday, April 11, 2005

The Cherries of Lucullus by Steven Saylor

“The Cherries of Lucullus” By Steven Saylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This story takes place in ancient Rome just before Cicero was elected Consul. The main character is Gordianus the Finder. Lucullus, famous general and epicurean, has asked his friend, Cicero, to bring Gordianus to dinner.

Lucullus was, and still is, famous for his elaborate and extravagant dinner parties, thus the origin of the phrase “Lucullan feast”. The dinner to which Gordianus is invited is to be one of the more elaborate ones. The guests are to be Lucullus’s wife, his brother Marcus, Cicero, Gordianus, and the three A’s, Antiocus, the Greek philosopher, Arcesislaus, the sculptor, and Archias, the poet.

Once dinner is over Lucullus takes his guests into his orchard where he has the only cherry trees in Rome. He brought those trees, along with many other exotic plants and flowers, back from his many military campaigns in the far corners of the empire. The cherries are just now ripe, and he invites his guests to help themselves.

While in the orchard, Lucullus tells Gordianus why he was invited. Lucullus believes that an old enemy of his, Varius, is currently masquerading as a slave tending the roses and biding his time before attempting to assassinate him. Lucullus had captured Varius and was bringing him back to Rome by sea for public execution. Varius escaped his chains and went over the side. He hasn’t been seen since. One of Varius’s distinguishing characteristics is the fact that he has only one eye, the left being missing. Motho the gardener has only one eye, only it’s his right eye that is missing. In spite of that fact, and in spite of the fact that Lucullus has had men who knew Varius tell him that Motho is just a slave gardener, Lucullus remains convinced that Motho is Varius. He wants Gordianus to confirm this.

In spite of the fact that I am not drawn to Ancient Rome as a setting for much of anything, I found this story to be engaging. Mr. Saylor is able to make the setting believable, injecting just enough detail about the culture and politics of the time without being obtrusive, a delicate balancing act. The writing is smooth, and he doesn’t try to “Latinize” the dialogue. I found myself genuinely interested in how Gordianus was going to prove or disprove Motho’s identity. The solution is one that I certainly didn’t expect, and one that ties the story back to a problem a segment of our current population has.

In short, an excellent story.


At 3:04 PM, Blogger Candace said...

Dang it. You're ahead of me AGAIN! Good reviews, Bob. Really enjoying them, esp "Everybody's Girl" from yesterday. Who hasn't known someone like that? Eck.

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