In Nero’s Concert by Don Westenhaver, flames engulf Rome, sparking murder and religious conflict that divides friends. Leading the investigation of the suspicious blaze is Rusticus, a former gladiator who is also now Emperor Nero’s finance minister and close friend. When a woman, Camilia, appears in Rusticus’ office with a death mask found on a Roman Senator, his interest peaks in many ways. Oddly, it seems as though the Senator did not die because of the fire. Someone might have been murdered him instead. As Camilia and Rusticus chase clues about the murder, more bodies turn up, bearing masks of those who were closest to Emperor Nero and the image of Rusticus’ deceased wife. It is a painful reminder of what he has lost and threatens to derail the burgeoning relationship he has enjoyed with Camilia. Many of the Roman people are blaming Nero for the fire, as he has benefited from the destruction from a newer and larger palace. By contrast, Nero is particularly keen on seeing the new sect of Christians blamed for the disaster. Camilia is keeping a dangerous secret from Rusticus that could endanger both their lives and the welfare of everyone the pair loves.
I liked the ease with which Mr. Westenhaver tells this story. The dialogue and descriptions are easy to follow. The characters were very clear-cut; it was easy to pinpoint the antagonists. The only person shaded in gray was Nero, dependent on Rusticus’ point of view. Without giving away the ending, I did wonder how easily Nero and Rusticus could have parted without the Emperor making a more significant effort to find his lifelong friend. It seemed as though their friendship would have warranted a different resolution.