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Saturday, 1 August 2020

‘A Pinch of Pure Cunning’ by Jane Finnis

Published by Matador,
28 July 2020.
ISBN: 978-1-83859506-7 (PB)

A Pinch of Pure Cunning is an anthology of six short stories set at the time of Ancient Rome, four in Northern Britain and two in Rome itself. The four British mysteries feature Aurelia Marcella, the innkeeper of the Oak Tree Mansio, who is the protagonist in the author’s four full-length novels. In Roman Britain, an innkeeper was usually a male profession, but Aurelia is a strong, woman who has turned the Oak Tree into a successful business. Aurelia is a woman with determination, courage and common-sense, which she uses to solve mysteries, large or small.

In ‘Wild By Name, Wild By Nature’, Aurelia and her sister, Albia, are delighted when Feroux, The Wild Man, a famous gladiator, spends the night at the mansio, but when Feroux becomes ill it could prove disastrous for the mansio’s reputation. To counter the rumours that the Oak Tree’s food is responsible for poisoning Feroux, Aurelia is determined to discover the truth. The story A Pinch of Pure Cunning also provides the title for the anthology and in it Aurelia uses a cat and superstition to help confirm the identity of a thief. In The Golden Princess Aurelia conducts a locked room investigation, although the crime is not murder but the theft of a valuable statue. Another theft occurs in The Single-Handed Soldier, this time the missing item is a bust of the Emperor Domitian and some gold coins, and once again Aurelia has to discover the truth before the reputation of the mansio is damaged.

The two stories set in Rome have different male protagonists. In Hide and Seek, Marius, a member of the Praetorian Guard, finds himself in a desperate situation when a letter from his brother is intercepted by the Emperor’s spies and its contents appear to commit the ultimate treason, that of criticising the Emperor Nero’s singing. Trapped in his prison cell, Marius has to work out the reason behind his brother’s fatal indiscretion and placate Nero before they are both executed. The Cleopatra Game is based on the story that the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, had dissolved her pearls in red wine and drank them. When a bride-to-be plays the same game, it has deadly results, and Rufus, a nobleman’s bodyguard, investigates.

All six stories are cleverly crafted with engaging protagonists, neat plots, and fascinating historical backgrounds. They are all excellent in themselves, as well as making a delightful introduction to the Aurelia Marcella novels. A Pinch of Pure Cunning is a very good read, which I recommend.
Reviewer: Carol Westron

Jane Finnis read history at the University of London before working as a radio producer for the BBC.  Her Roman mysteries are about life (and death) in first-century Roman Britain. They feature Aurelia Marcella, who runs an inn on the road to York, and keeps getting drawn into solving mysteries in what is still a new frontier province of the mighty Roman Empire. Jane now lives in  east Yorkshire and spends her time researching and writing about the Roman Empire.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts click on the title.

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