Engineers in Historical Mysteries

Mystery novels have featured a variety of protagonists – almost every profession that we encounter in our daily lives shows up in mystery novels. I’ve read cozy mysteries that feature artists, bakers, caterers, cat lovers, dog walkers, flappers, police and private detectives and even wedding organizers – well, you get the picture. Historical mysteries are a little more constrained in how their protagonists make a living. Yet they too feature a wide variety of roles – detectives, doctors, historians, politicians, soothsayers, soldiers, and spies – despite the constraints of history.

However one particular profession, that of an engineer, makes far fewer appearances in historical mysteries and surprisingly, even in regular mystery novels. But when they do, boy, do they make an impact. (disclosure: my colleague Ramesh and yours truly were both formally trained as engineers, though few are willing to publicly admit that we are such.)

Robert Harris’ Pompeii is probably the most well-known mystery to feature an engineer as its protagonist – the young Marcus Attilius Primus. The story begins with a simple tale of an engineer being despatched to solve a technical problem – not unlike one we’d encounter ourselves after a particularly violent storm or hurricane. Water supply  to the greater Naples region is affected as springs run dry and the engineer in charge of the aqueduct has disappeared. Of course as modern readers, we know – whether we are aware of it or not  – that Mt. Vesuvius is about to burst to high heavens.

Harris does a great job of building up the story, from what starts off as a simple municipal service problem that a maintenance engineer could address, to both a tale of political intrigue and nature about to let lose. The book does a great job of explaining the engineer’s role in those times. More importantly, it brings to fore the critical role that engineers played – be it laying the roads, or building the aqueducts – that allowed the Roman empire to not just grow, but thrive.

The next engineer I encountered was also one troubled by the impending explosion of Mt. Vesuvius in the short story collection Pompeii — A Day of Fire. We’ve written about it earlier in prose and in verse. The focus in this tale is on the human end of things – how his unwilling bride re-assesses our engineer hero, who’s not only older than her but seems unromantic – in light of his actions even as the world they know seems to be ending in fire and brimstone. It’s a short but sweet rendition of engineer as human.

However, Thomas K. Carpenter goes one step further, building an entire 7-book series – Alexandrian Saga. Featuring Heron of Alexander – who’s widely believed to have invented the first steam engine in the 1st century CE – the series suggests that it is actually his twin sister posing as him. Carpenter has him/her solving a variety of problems that have vexed mankind since then, starting with who might have burned the Great Library of Alexandria. Carpenter has also written a short story, The Virtues of Madness, where he shows how Temple “miracles” were performed thanks to engineers such as Heron.

The use of war machines, the building of roads, temples and major civil projects, many of which stand to this day, meant engineers played a big role in historical times. And they are beginning to get their due, none too soon, in historical mysteries too. Tell us about your favorite engineer or other professions in historical mysteries!

Books featured in this post

Robert Harris Pompeii

Stephanie Dray A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Thomas K. Alexander Alexandrian Saga 

Thomas K. Carpenter, Virtues of Madness 


C is for Cuspius

Our minds often work in strange ways, flitting from one thought to another, like bees seeking nectar — and then not even dwelling on one long enough to extract anything from it. Or maybe it’s just me. I was just thinking earlier today that it’s about time we did another post on what we are reading these days. That got me reflecting about Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius, which in turn reminded me of our post on Pompeii, our review of Pompeii: Day of Fire, and our subsequent podcast on a related theme. Somehow or the other, that whole thought process led me to this charming little article on one of the characters in that collection of stories — the Aedile Pansa.

Such are the little delights one finds in wandering the garden paths of history. Or perhaps this is merely an interesting footnote on a real inhabitant of a little Roman settlement that was wiped out in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. I’ll take either interpretation — but more importantly, what do you think?

Pompeian Connections

One Pompeian family that has always intrigued me is the gens Cuspia. Besides generally being prolific in civic and political affairs, the family has been memoralised in one of the grand houses of the city, and more creatively, as one of the characters in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’sThe Last Days of Pompeii. Bulwer-Lytton always identifies him, a close friend of the protagonist Glaucus, as the aedile, often running off to deal with organising the next round of contests in the amphitheatre or sorting out the aerarium which he claims is in disrepair, typically with a large number of clients in tow. Della Corte identified one of the large houses in Region VI as the House of Pansa (VI.6.i), although according to Bulwer-Lytton, Pansa’s taste in decor left something to be desired:

“‘Well, I must own,’ said the aedile Pansa, ‘that your house, though scarcely larger than a case…

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Pompeii’s Fiery End – Podcast #2

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, says the Chinese proverb. Presumably, a road map would be helpful, too! In our first podcast, we started off on our exploration of history, mystery and writing and promised to provide just such a road map. And what better way to do that than to highlight what we are reading now on our journey?

So, in our second podcast, we share our favorite stories from Day of Fire, a collection of short stories set in Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 (you can read our reviews here and here). The collection is edited by Stephanie Dray (who is the author of the Cleopatra’s Daughter series set in ancient Egypt). Also referenced in our podcast is Kate Quinn’s Mistress of Rome series.

If you have read Day of Fire, let us know what your favorite stories are. And if you haven’t read this collection yet, make sure to add it to your reading list, and make up your own road map. The beauty of this particular journey is that there are many road maps to choose from!

Here are the authors from this collection.

Author, Story

Stephanie Dray, The Whore
Ben Kane, The Soldier
E. KnightThe Mother
Sophie Perinot, The Heiress
Kate QuinnThe Senator
Vicky Alvear ShecterThe Son

A Day of Fire — Review in Verse

Day of FIreThis is a collection
Of six stories,
Set during Pompeii’s destruction
By a volcano’s furies.

Six authors, six views
Of the events of a single day,
As terror slowly brews
While townsfolk go their daily way.
Senators and slaves,
Brides and mothers,
Soldiers and knaves,
Whores and others —
Lives intertwined
In their loves and fears,
As they inexorably wind
To the end of their years.
Some survive, many perish:
But their stories and the setting
Is what you will cherish.
I found it quite riveting!

Pompeii – etched in stone and more

Mt. Vesuvius

Photo Credit: David Pirmann

Names all too often conjure vivid images in our minds.  When these are the names of places – real or mythical, historical or present day – these images can get richer still. For me personally, few can compete with what the single word Pompeii brings to mind. Visitors to Pompeii are witness to a day, from nearly 2000 years ago, frozen in time. A tableau of people,  not unlike ourselves, homes and an entire town, frozen. Even today many years after my first visit to Pompeii my mind and heart are filled with so many questions and a sadness for lives interrupted and stories untold.

Nearly 2.5 million tourists visit Pompeii every year – a sign that it holds a unique fascination in the minds of people the world over (compare this with the 3 million visitors to the Taj Mahal and the 4 million visitors to the Colosseum in Rome each year). What happened in the course of a single day in 79 AD captivates the imagination not just because of the suddenness and violence of the catastrophe, but equally because of the sheer humanness of the spectacle.

What makes Pompeii such an interesting subject for both writers and readers is the number of unanswered questions that surround it. Did it indeed take place in August of 79AD as Pliny the Younger wrote or later that year? Who are the people – nobility, commoners or slaves whose bodies have been frozen in place by the volcanic ash at the time of their deaths?  Why were they there that day and what were their stories?

A Day of FireThe ruins of Pompeii are a preternaturally preserved snapshot of a day in the life of ordinary folk from centuries ago – but a day unlike any other, a day that ended tragically for the inhabitants.  This is the world that Pliny the Younger tries to describe in his letters about the event and the way in which it claimed his own uncle, Pliny the Elder. And this is the world that the six authors of Pompeii — A Day of Fire try to imagine as they recount the unfolding of that fateful day through the eyes of their all too human protagonists. As Vesuvius erupts and an avalanche of pumice stones and ash engulfs the town, every one of its residents is affected – some die instantaneously, others perish while trying to escape, and a lucky few miraculously survive.

The six stories follow their respective actors – young men and women, legionaries and senators, mothers and priestesses, patricians and slaves – in an interwoven tale that shares a common time span and backdrop. Each of them has their own personal story arc, which inevitably intersects with some of the others (being townspeople caught up in a common tragedy), and each story comes face-to-face with the same violent reality. There is a visceral sense, in this anthology, of drama, impending peril, and nature’s raw force. Against this backdrop, the characters are etched so sharply, that they almost congeal into the real-life plaster casts from the archaeological excavations. It is not hard to imagine “the beggar,” “the pregnant mother,” or “the slave,” being among the characters featured in these stories.

Fast forward 2000 years to the present, and we find that while imagination is undoubtedly powerful, so are the tools of science. And the many scientists who have been working on reconstructing that day from centuries ago are gradually piecing together an image and a tableau that is every bit as fascinating as what the authors of Pompeii – A Day of Fire have created. Using computerized tomography, teams of archeologists, anthropologists, radiologists, and restorers, have been studying the casts and artifacts from the ruins to reconstruct the habits and lifestyles of the residents of Pompeii. What is emerging is a picture of the victims representing a relatively normal distribution of humanity. For example, the team used the surprisingly well-preserved dental remains to estimate the age of the victims and the probable nature of their diet. In another case, evidence from the casts suggested that the victims were wearing fairly heavy clothing – which then called into question the long-held belief that the catastrophe happened in late August. The scientists now believe the eruption is more likely to have happened in October, in conflict with Pliny the Younger’s account. As one of their lead scientists says, “These people had lives, real stories that deserve to be told…”

Of course, present-day research raises its own questions providing future writers – especially of historical mysteries – ample room to dream up their own answers. Until then, Pompeii – A Day of Fire provides a great read for fans of history and fiction to get a sense for a day unlike any other in the lives of ancient Pompeiians.