Dr. Albert Bell Jr. of the Hope College faculty applies his interest in ancient history to his latest mystery novel, setting the action in the Roman Empire.
His newest mystery, "All Roads Lead to Murder," is set in April of A.D. 83, in the provincial city of Smyrna. His protagonist is a real-life historical figure, Pliny the Younger.
Bell has drawn upon his scholarly interest in the period before in writing fiction. His novel "Daughter of Lazarus" is set in first-century Rome, and his mystery "Kill Her Again" is set around an archaeological dig in modern-day Italy.
A professor of history and chair of the department at Hope, he noted that he finds the era and empire interesting as both a scholar and an author.
"It just appeals to me because in some ways it's similar to the United States today," he said. "It's large, it's a diverse culture, people travel long distances, and many of those things are the kind of issues that we face today. There are different groups of people who are interacting who don't always understand one another, who don't always get along well, and it seems to me a situation where a lot of tension could arise, and that's certainly a good setting for fiction."
The book's cast includes a mix of characters-- Roman aristocrats, a Germanic merchant, a Christian doctor, and others in their orbit as the crime takes place and the investigation unfolds. Bell also mixes in details of life at the time, such as the treatment of slaves, the risks of travel by sea and the quality of tavern fare.
"All Roads Lead to Murder's" protagonist, Pliny the Younger, held a variety of government offices in the Roman Empire, and is known through surviving letters that include his first-person account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and his investigation of the Christians in the province of Bithynia. The personality and mind that emerge from the writings made him an intriguing choice for Bell, who has also written scholarly articles about Pliny--and earlier included him as a character in "Daughter of Lazarus."
"I've come to realize that he has a kind of a skeptical rational view of the world, a little bit unlike other Romans of the time," he said. "And when you have a private investigator sort of person as Pliny is in the novel, you always want him to be a little bit out of sync with the people around him."
"That's one of the virtues of the letters he wrote about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius," Bell said. "He doesn't just say, 'You know, the gods destroyed the town,' he gives you this detailed moment-by-moment description just like a modern scientist would of what's happening."
Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, had written a natural history, one of the era's largest compendiums of science. Pliny the Younger in his letters mentions having inherited a library of 160 scrolls from his uncle, a resource that Bell plans to have his detective draw upon as an investigative reference in future books.
Although Bell drew upon the historical record in writing "All Roads Lead to Murder," he intends the background as complement to the characters and story and not as an undercover history lesson. At the same time, though, he won't mind if people enjoy the book on multiple levels.
"I hope people will find this book enlightening and informative as well as just a good read that you can take to the beach or something and sit back and enjoy it for the afternoon," he said.
"All Roads Lead to Murder" is published by High Country Publishers Ltd. of Boone, N.C. The hardcover book costs $21.95, and is available at the college's Hope-Geneva Bookstore as well as other area book sellers and on-line book sellers.
A reception in conjunction with the publication will be held on Thursday, Oct. 24, at 3:30 p.m. in the Herrick Room of the DeWitt Center, located on Columbia Avenue at 12th Street. The public is invited, and admission is free.