Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ruth Downie

Ruth Downie is the author of a series of mysteries featuring Roman Army medic and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso: Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, Tabula Rasa, Vita Brevis, and the newly released Memento Mori.

Recently I asked Downie about what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually have at least two books on the go at once: one on audio for the times when I can’t sit and read, and one for bedtime.

The latest bedtime reading is S.S. Mausoof’s thriller The Warehouse, in which Karachi-based insurance investigator Syed Qais travels to war-torn Waziristan to find out why a businessman is refusing to claim compensation after his warehouse is destroyed. By the time the reasons become clear, Qais is trapped in the bitter and violent struggle between the Taliban, the Pakistani military, and the American armed forces. Oh, and of course, there’s a woman involved. Several women in fact, including Qais’s mother and his teenage daughter, waiting for him to come home.

Waziristan is a terrific setting for a thriller – Mausoof paints a convincing picture of a province teeming with shrewd operators, violent thugs, fiercely loyal tribespeople, war-weary military officers, religious fanatics, religious people who aren’t fanatics, exhausted civilians and friends who may or may not be trustworthy. Often several of these combine in one character. There are no easy answers, either for Qais or for Waziristan, and that’s one of the reasons I’m very much enjoying this book.

Meanwhile on audio, parts of Victorian London are being devastated not by explosives, but by an outbreak of cholera. In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson relates the story of the hunt to eliminate the source of a disease that wipes out whole families with terrifying speed.

I was vaguely aware of the tale of the notorious Broad Street water pump before now, but had no idea of the complexities behind “and when they turned the pump off, the epidemic stopped.”

It’s an encouraging tale because it demonstrates how real change happens: not with a sudden “eureka!” moment but with a combination of painstaking study, local knowledge and and sheer bloody persistence in the face of opposition and scorn.

The book is wider than the story of one epidemic: it’s about the growth of cities and the challenges they face. I was struck by the parallels with ancient Rome: firstly that the writer Frontinus may have been right when he claimed that Roman water engineering was a far greater achievement than the idle Pyramids or the “useless, though famous, creations of the Greeks”. Also, there’s a marked similarity in tone between the bold – and contradictory, and wrong – Victorian assertions of miracle cures for cholera, and the squabbling medics of Rome, where Pliny claims that memorials could be found bearing the words, “A gang of doctors killed me.”
Visit Ruth Downie's website.

The Page 69 Test: Memento Mori.

--Marshal Zeringue