Friday, February 22, 2013

Caesar moriturus est

We all, of course, know about the death of Julius Caesar. According to Shakespeare, the doomed dictator was warned by a soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March”. But Caesar did not heed this warning, and on that day he was stabbed 23 times by a group of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus (Et tu, Brute?). Sic semper tyrannis and all that rot.

At least that’s what the historians think, and let’s leave them to worry about facts and historical accuracy. Instead, let us contemplate what really happened on that fateful March in 44 B. C.. Have you heard, by any chance, of Manlius Scribo, the star reporter for the Evening Tiber—an early success in journalism, edited by Q. Bulbous Apex? Perhaps you have heard of the barbaric British slave who served Scribo: Smithicus? But more important than that, do you know that the events leading to Caesar’s death were all started by the murder of the actor J. Romulus Comma? No? Then, my boy, you must run along to your nearest bookstore and acquaint yourself with Wallace Irwin’s The Julius Caesar Murder Case.

First things first: this is not a historical mystery in the sense that we understand today. This isn’t a historically accurate depiction of Ancient Rome, and the author has no intention of trying to reconstruct this long-gone society and then setting a murder story within the time period. No, this is the Ancient Rome of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Instead, this is more a comedy, with characters making references to inventions that would come years later – for instance, when the slave Smithicus suggests that traffic can be controlled via beacons of different colours. The book feels rather like a movie from the 1930s, maybe in the mystery-comedy genre, and the dialogue often has the same snappy feel to it.

More specifically, much of the comedy is vicious satire, laid squarely at the heels of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In fact, the book’s joking dedication is “To Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, this book is affectionately dedicated with the author’s feeling that in distance there is security.” There is a very strong anti-fascist theme throughout the book, with various characters condemning Caesar and the way he has seized control over Rome. There are many wisecracks throughout— for instance,  there are some nice lines about censorship of the press.  Keep in mind that this book is released in 1935, long before the outbreak of WWII.

Even the death of Caesar is played for laughs, as we discover that the historical account of his assassination was lacking one key detail. This is more or less where the plot takes over and the satire begins to direct itself towards the mystery genre. It’s targeted quite a bit throughout the book, in a playful way. For instance, the novel opens with a bogus bibliography that lists many important sources that went into the making of this book, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica or that eternal guide, Andrew Flech Doughbeer’s 100 Lessons in Sex. But what concerns us here is the mysteries that are listed. Many of these are real mysteries – for instance, Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Box from Japan or Ellery Queen’s The American Gun Mystery – but some are joke titles. After S. S. Van Dine’s The Green Murder Case is listed, there follow to books by “Anonymous": The Yellow Murder Case and The Blue Murder Case, as well as the Congressional Record, 1876-79.

Other plot elements poke fun at some of the genre’s traditions. For instance, Cleopatra is presented as your classic femme fatale, a most appropriate incarnation. Mark Anthony is a ruthless businessman who won’t let anything stand in his path. The prospective murder victim, Caesar, is so thick-headed about there being a murder conspiracy against him, that when it is pointed out to him he laughs it off. He’s having too much fun running his very own empire.

Oh, for a higher-quality image!
All this is done with a sense of play and a genuine respect for the genre’s key staple: ingenuity. You see, the murder of Julius Caesar has a genuinely ingenious solution, one that I did not see coming at all. And not only that, you get all the clues that point out the murderer’s identity. I’m ashamed of my failure to solve the case because I should have seen the solution, but I didn’t.

So if you’ve never read The Julius Caesar Murder Case, I highly recommend it. It’s plenty of fun. It’s an early example of the historical mystery genre that has become wildly popular these days. It doesn’t try to recreate history like Paul Doherty might, but it has fun with its premise, and it transports you to an Ancient Rome that follows the logic of the Looney Tunes universe. The murder plot is plenty of fun and rather ingenious. The satire directed against Hitler and Mussolini is genuinely funny, as is the satirical take on the mystery genre. It’s a fun read overall.

Note: This book can be purchased from Ramble House as a print edition or as an e-edition for $6. Visit the Ramble House website for more details on how to order. You can read Richard A. Lupoff’s introduction to the book here.

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