Monday, April 14, 2008

A baffling mystery in Ancient Rome

Seven boys attend a prestigious school in Ancient Rome called the Xanthos School. Their teacher, Xantippus, is Greek and seems to them a learned, humorless man. It is hard to pay attention when the school is open to the street, and so many interesting things are happening outside. One of the boys, Caius, keeps poking another, Rufus, with his stylus. Rufus can't concentrate, and when he is scolded, he writes "Caius is a dumbbell" on a wax stylus and hangs it up on the wall. A fight between the boys ensues, with Rufus getting kicked out of school.

The next morning, the boys arrive at school to find their teacher missing, and soon they discover that the very same words on the wax tablet have been painted on a temple in bright red paint: Caius is a dumbbell. What has Rufus done? The temple is dedicated to the Emperor, and although Rufus claims he's innocent, he is sure to be arrested for desecrating the temple if his friends can't prove his innocence. The boys' search for the truth takes them into dark and scary places where they discover things are not always what they seem.

I read this book to my children, 7 and 9 years old. The older one had been studying Ancient Rome in school, and I fondly remembered reading this when I was a child. At first I thought it was going to be too complex for them, with the strange names and unfamiliar setting, but from the very first night we began the book, they begged for another chapter every single time we read it. I had to stop to explain things a few times (particularly who was who - and even I had trouble telling the boys apart, as they are rather indistinguishable from each other), but we all truly enjoyed it. I had no idea that there was a sequel to this one called The Roman Ransom, and we will definitely be reading that one some time soon.

This book was written sixty years ago, and I have no doubt it will still be read sixty years from now. It is exciting and funny, presents an intriguing mystery with well-placed clues, and it explores both the bright and dark side of human nature. I also enjoyed learning about the inspiration for the novel: "During the 1936 excavations of Pompeii, a temple wall came to light on which had been scribbled, in a childish hand, the words: CAIUS ASINUS EST. That scrawl from the days of Ancient Rome was the inspiration for this book."

Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld; illustrated by Charlotte Kleinert; translated by Richard Winston (Harcourt Children's Books, 1956)

Other blog review:
Incredibooks

13 comments:

  1. I love this book! I agree, it's a great read aloud. I read it, and the sequel, to my oldest when he was about 9. And I'm planning on reading it to my youngest one of these days.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Detectives in Togas, I love the title!

    It's not often that books age as well as this. This sounds like a must read!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nicola - I'm glad you've enjoyed this one, too! How did you like the sequel? I had no idea it existed till I saw it listed in the back of our book!

    Nymeth - it's a fun mystery with interesting characters, and I loved the historical setting - especially the fact that the story wouldn't work if it were set in the modern day, so the setting really is integral to the book.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think this is a great way to make the abstract concepts of history more real for the kiddies. I read Pompeii by Robert Harris and it did the same thing for me.

    ReplyDelete
  5. oh my god! I read this when I was maybe 10 or 11 and I completely forgot about it! i didn't know it was that old. I remember it was good though, even though I'm not and wasn't a big mystery fan.
    thanks for reminding me of it!

    ReplyDelete
  6. oh you know, when I first read the title of your post, I thought you were going to review Caroline Lawrence books. Do you know them?

    ReplyDelete
  7. VA Gal - I think it really does bring the history to life. It was particularly fun for the 9yo to see how the things she'd been learning about in history class actually fit into the kids' day-to-day lives. I haven't read Pompeii - do you think I'd like it?

    Valentina - isn't it fun when you suddenly remember a book from your childhood? I had no idea it was so old, either - I guess it's fairly timeless because of the historical setting.

    I read the first Caroline Lawrence when it came out, but I haven't gotten to the others yet. I was thinking that my girls might enjoy those, too, so maybe I'll reread it with them some time soon.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think you would like Pompeii, its interesting and made ancient Rome much more alive for me!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks, Virginia Gal. I'll have to try it one of these days!

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is sometimes a hard sell for students, so reading it aloud is a great idea. The Caroline Lawrence books are a must read-- it took me a while to get into them, but then they are highly addictive! Lawrence also has a fabulous web site, and I think there are going to be 18 books altogether, which should keep you going for a while!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks for stopping by, Ms. Yingling! Great to know that the Lawrence series will be nice and long - I'm a big fan of historical mysteries (I love the Lindsey Davis ancient Rome mysteries for adults), so it's a treat that my kids are enjoying the genre too, and that we get to read them together.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I was thinking of this book today and told my wife about it, came online to see if I could remember the title, plugged the phrase CAIUS ASINUS EST into Google, and lo & behold. LOL I agree with everyone who says that this book is a great read. It's one of the few I remember from my childhood. Highly recommended.

    ReplyDelete
  13. David - That is hysterical! I am glad you were able to remember that helpful key phrase. :-)

    Are you going to reread it? I think it holds up surprisingly well to my fond memories of it.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment!