Nox Dormienda or A Long Night for Sleeping by Kelli Stanley is an attempt at what the author calls “Roman noir.” Set in first century AD Roman Britain, it has snappy dialogue and typical noir characters — prostitutes with hearts of gold, the hot blond who’s trouble but irresistible, the side kick, the muscle, fog and shadows courtesy of Londinium in winter. And of course there’s the private eye who can take as well as give a hit, has a past, and is nobody’s fool.
Our private eye Arcturus finds himself in a unique position. His mother was a native Brit/druid, his father a legionary. His adoptive father made him “Roman” and thus legitimized his position in Roman society. He is close to Agricola, the governor of Roman Britain, and thus close to power due to the fact that Arcturus is a medicus/healer. Yet he is still one of the people and has maintained ties to his native community.
The plot: hot blond visits Arcturus to tip him off that harm is going to be done to Agricola. A messenger is coming with word of Agricola’s disfavor with Emperor Domitian and his imminent recall. The messenger is a swarthy Syrian named Maecenas who also is engaged to our hot blond Gwyna. Gwyna comes from a native family that served Rome and benefitted but now finds itself in decline and needing money. Gwyna hates her betrothed and says she would kill the guy herself. Later that night, Maecenas is found dead on the alter to Mithras, with half of a ripped message in hand and bag of money on his body. Whodunnit? Gwyna’s native boyfriend Rhodri, known for his druid ways and hatred of the Romans? Was it a political murder? What did the message from the emperor really say? Arcturus has one week to find out before Domitian gets suspicious about the lack of response from his messenger and Agricola will have to consider civil war to keep his position. Arcturus’ sleuthing takes him to druid neighborhoods, a rundown bar/brothel owned by a wealthy smarmy Roman and staffed by his slaves, army barracks, the sacred shrine of Mithras and the halls of power in Roman Britain before he cracks the case (and gets some cracks to the body for his trouble).
Stanley is a classics scholar and is careful and meticulous with her details of life in the Roman Empire in the first century. She creates a decent plot but it’s the noir aspect that makes it such fun to read. Stanley in her afterward writes: “By noir, I mean the classic private eye language of Chandler, Hammett, and the snappy-tough dialogue of films from the period. The noir style is born from urban life, and Rome defined urbanitas for centuries. Ancient Roman culture was, in essence, a noir culture. All they lacked were cigarettes and scotch.” A couple of my favorite lines:
I was shaken up inside like a small pair of dice in a too large cup — tossed by a drunk on a losing streak.
She wanted Maecenas dead, now he is, and her boyfriend was right there. That’s as obvious as a middle-aged redhead.
If you like detective novels, historical fiction and noir, you’ll have fun reading Nox Dormienda.