posted October 19, 2011

Mystery Novels in Ancient Rome Continue with "The Corpus Conundrum"

The protagonist doesn't have an easy time of it in "The Corpus Conundrum: A Third Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger," the newly published mystery set in ancient Rome by Dr. Albert Bell of the Hope College history faculty.

As the book opens, Bell's title character - a real-life figure from the first century A.D.-- is enjoying a respite at home recovering from the events of the previous volume in the series.  The tranquility doesn't last long, with the discovery of a body during a hunting expedition drawing him back into service as a detective.

The man who was found appears to be dead, but Pliny cannot determine the cause. His servants take the body back to the estate and place it in the stable, under guard. The next morning the man is gone. As Pliny and his friend the historian Tacitus try to determine what happened to him, they encounter a man who claims that the missing man was his 700-year-old father and a woman who may be an empusa - a Roman vampire.

"Publishers' Weekly" has praised the book, noting that "Bell deftly blends clues and period details in this worthy alternative to the Roman historicals by such better known authors as Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis." Steven Saylor himself said, "Bell's choice of protagonists...  is inspired. His writing is clear and crisp. His use of the historical sources is ingenious." In her review N. S. Gill said, "Were the Roman sub-genre as popular as it deserves to be, you'd find this on the grocery store shelves alongside the feline contributions of the late Lilian Jackson Braun."

The earlier books in the series also received critical acclaim. Barbara D'Amato, past president of the Mystery Writers of America, called the first installment, "All Roads Lead to Murder," "a wonderful book." The second book, "The Blood of Caesar," was named one of the five best mysteries of 2008 by "Library Journal," which called it "a masterpiece of the historical mystery genre."

The series draws on Bell's professional interest in ancient history. His scholarly work includes the book "Exploring the New Testament World," which reviews the social, political and cultural background against which the New Testament was written, and a number of articles on topics including Pliny the Younger.

According to Bell, who is a professor of history at Hope, Pliny the Younger had held a variety of government offices in the Roman Empire, and is known through surviving letters that include his first-person account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and his investigation of the Christians in the province of Bithynia. His appellation distinguished him from his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who wrote a natural history that was one of the era's largest compendiums of science.  More information about Pliny the Younger, the books and the characters in them can be found on a website that Bell has developed,

The new Pliny the Younger novel is Bell's seventh work of fiction. In addition to the three Pliny mysteries, he has also written the mystery "Death Goes Dutch," which is set in present-day Grand Rapids; the historical novel "Daughter of Lazarus," which is set in first-century Rome and includes Pliny the Younger as a character; and the children's mystery "The Secret of the Lonely Grave," which is set in contemporary Kentucky and earlier this year won the inaugural Evelyn Thurman Young Readers Book Award from Western Kentucky University Libraries. He also wrote the autobiographical "Perfect Game, Imperfect Lives: A Memoir Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Don Larsen's Perfect Game," which reflects on the 1956 World Series.

Bell has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1978. He holds a bachelor's degree from Carson Newman College, a master's from Duke University, a Master of Divinity degree from Southeastern Seminary and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina.  He and his wife have four children and a grandson.