The Roman private detective Gordianus, called the Finder, seeks to flee the dangers and the corruption of Rome and retires with his family to a farm in the Etruscan countryside. But Rome won't let him go: his benefactor, now arch conservative consul Cicero presses Gordianus to become one of his spies in order to bring down an alleged criminal conspirator, the radical reformer Lucius Sergius Catilina. When Gordianus tries to refuse this dubious request, a headless body turns up on his farm. At first, Gordianus tries to solve the riddle of this "Nemo" (lat. for Nobody) and to steer clear of both the Ciceronian and Catilina's party. But soon, the powerful Roman elite leaves the hounded Catilina and his desperate supporters no way out except for armed insurrection, and Gordianus' family becomes drawn into this tragic civil and military confrontation.
Please note that "Catilina's Riddle" is not in the first line a mystery novel. It is a political thriller, a human tragedy and a colorful panoramic view of Roman society and politics that seems disturbingly up-to date. The book starts out slowly, so be prepared to give it time. It is, however, not too long. In fact, "Catilina's Riddle" ought to be longer than it is, because Saylor regretfully neglects to describe in proper detail the social misery, poverty, enslavement and sheer human desperation that led to the uprising of Catilina. The historical sources about Catilina's conspiracy are very scarse, very biased and therefore highly contradictory in themselves. Cicero's speeches against Catilina are not much more than poisonous invectives of a conservative statesman against a popular reformer, and Sallust draws on them heavily in his book. Many writers that tried to tackle this historical material seem to accept Cicero's statements at face value, completely missing the fact that these speeches are not honest fact-based narratives but sharp political weapons that were intended to destroy Catilina's name and career, to drive him out of Rome and ultimately to get him killed. The results of wide-spread trust into Cicero's intergity are stories told straight from Cicero's papers, keeping in line with his political stance, including all the defamations and the slander that the ancient Roman orator heaped on his opponents.
Saylor's book is a wonderful suprise. The author does not only masterfully tell a tale that is riveting, powerful and moving but goes to great lengths to reconstruct the historical reality. When trying to put together a coherent version of the events of 63 BC, one must perforce arrive at the conclusions Saylor seems to have arrived at: that Catilina's cause was most just, and his alleged crimes probably never took place. Saylor's great historical novel moves one to tears by giving a glimpse of the truth.