This title had stuck in my memory from perusing Ramble House’s stable, and when I saw it listed in Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1992) — having not previously realised it was an impossible crime — I snapped it up. Then it cropped up in the comments of a post at Brad’s place and it was as if the stars had aligned. The dedication to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler “with the author’s feeling that in distance there is security” hints that you’re not getting the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, and the opening line introducing “Publius Manlius Scribo, star reporter and sports columnist on the Evening Tiber” in 44 B.C., heavily implies that you’re clearly not getting a slavishly faithful historical epic, either.
The Julius Caesar Murder Case (1935) by Wallace Irwin occupies the fourth side of a triangle set up by Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, and A.A. Milne. It has Crispin’s swift eye for absurdity and incident, Bruce’s bottomless inventiveness for overturning conventions and playing to the gallery, and Milne’s stumbling application of the detective plot to slightly underwhelming ends…somehow ending up a faintly frustrating novel of detection that throws open its arms to better embrace the rollicking ribaldry which makes it so ludicrously entertaining, yet in doing so doesn’t quite grip the necessity of plotting that Bruce displayed with a similar enterprise in the best of his Sergeant Beef novels (c.f. Case for Three Detectives (1936), Case with No Conclusion (1939), Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)).
But, goddamn, it is hilarious, though. There’s a line to make you laugh on every page. Scribo falling asleep on “one of those solid oak beds which made every Roman wish that somebody had enough get-up-and-get to invent springs”, the “personally designed .xxxii dagger” he keeps in his toga, lines like “a man can’t stab himself in the back, even if he is a politician”, or the narrative assertion that “Thackeray did the battle of Waterloo in a page or so, and on that scale [the battle of] Philippi should be worth, maybe, one tight little paragraph” — at times this feels less like a novel and more just a series of breaths between jokes. And they’re very good jokes, covering the gamut from Scribo walking “like a pair of ice tongs” after an arduous horseback journey all the way up to characters berating each other for speaking in blank verse…Irwin has found a rich ore and mined it with prodigious asperity.
Special mention must go to Scribo’s interactions with his newly-acquired British slave Smith, surely one of the great sidekicks of GAD. The inscrutable, Obelix-esque Briton — unbeatable in a fight, able to anticipate his master’s every need — is a masterpiece of British reserve on the page:
“I have taken the liberty of engaging you a rather fast litter. The charge will be two denarii to the Wall and back.”
“Wonderful! Do you read minds in Briton?”
“No, sir. We’re not interested in other people’s minds.”
“Smithicus” said Manlius solemnly, “how loyal are you?”
“I’d lay down my life for you, sir, in a manner of speaking.”