One way a writer grows as a writer is to study stories in their field. In my case, that means I like to get my hands on mysteries. I’ve been reading Andrew Cartmel’s The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax, and I cannot wait for the sequel to come out in a couple of months. Lately, I’ve also read the Richard Castle novels (mainly for the meta aspect, where the novels Castle wrote in the show actually exist), and, of course, with writing a forensic anthropologist myself, I read Kathy Reichs (I’m on her second Temperance Brennan novel).
So when James told me that Big Finish Productions had a murder mystery audio, we both agreed discussing it would make for a fun column.
Let’s get the basic details out of the way before we hit play.
- Written by: David Llewellyn
- Directed by: Scott Handcock
- Starring: Samuel Barnett (Marcus Tullius Cicero), George Naylor (Quintus Tullius Cicero), Simon Ludders (Sextus Roscius), Elizabeth Morton (Caecilia Metella), Stephen Critchlow (Etrucius), Youssef Kerkour (Titus Capito). Other parts played by members of the cast.
- Available Here
The story moves very fast, not wasting time with a lot of setup which is something I appreciate about a mystery. A wealthy landowner has been murdered in the street. His son, Sextus Roscius, is accused of the crime. Fair enough, I’d look at the son first.
The catch is, Sextus was sixty miles away the night his father was murdered. These days that might not seem very far—but in Rome, 80 A.D., that’s quite a trek.
I love how thorough Cicero and his brother are, even as Roman men, thousands of years before forensics, profiles, or the revolution the Sherlock Holmes stories enacted on investigation. I know when I wrote my story for The Lemon Herberts, I rode the struggle bus trying to figure out how to compensate for the lack of computers in the 1970s. Even then, I still had most of what Cicero lacked.
But that problem didn’t stop the team behind this audio. Cicero follows trails further than I thought possible for that day and age.
I’m trying to be careful not to spoil but so much of this. I think you guys should take a listen to it.
The perk of this being in Ancient Rome is that the forum allows for one of my favorite mystery tropes, the infamous breakdown.
Cicero does it and he brings up this quote. It’s something we can all learn from.
“If we are to accuse a man of murder, there are three questions we must ask. First, and most importantly of all, was the accused at the scene of the crime? Second, did he have the motive to kill? And third, did he have the means?”
1) Was the accused at the scene of the crime?
This was something I struggled with when writing Badge City: Notches. The perk of The Whole Art of Detection was that the murder happened before my investigator came on the scene. It was the only one in the story so that became less of an issue. Ironically so, because the solution depends on killing someone from thousands of miles away.
The soon to be accused in Notches, on the other hand, was in the middle of a killing spree. Yet they had to maintain appearances at the same time.
Hence why there was a multi-page timeline, detailing where the killer was at any given moment, attempting to keep me sane.
2) Did he have motive?
I stand by this being the trickiest aspect.
The thing is, any number of things can cause someone to commit a grievous crime.
What fits this particular crime, and does your criminal have a motive your audience can believe?
3) Did he have means?
This also can be tricky. There are statistics about male and female killers, killers of different ages, and so on.
If someone used an advanced drug, where did they get it? If they threw someone off a roof, do they have the strength to do it?
Can they afford to have someone do it for them?
All good questions. Questions Cicero has answers to, and you need to as well.
Another question Cicero raises, though less essential for writers in general: “Who benefited?”
These are questions you must ask when you’re solving a mystery.
It’s another way to ask that important question, “Who had motive?”
Time after time, I’ve mentioned how much I hate having to come up with motive. It’s hard, and tricky, and at times frustrating. But it often makes your mystery. It’s essential, and this understanding of how essential it is serves Circero well.
Cicero reminds me a lot of a mix between The Thin Man and the Sherlock Holmes stories, but set in Ancient Rome around the forums that were their justice system.
So what did I think of Big Finish’s murder mystery?
This audio is just around an hour, and it highlights a lot of what makes a good mystery. It’s quite compressed and moves quickly.
With Cicero, Big Finish takes what could be a several hundred page murder mystery and weaves it into a tale that is just under an hour. Not only is it a solid mystery that kept my attention throughout, it also provides a fun look into Ancient Rome’s justice system.
Cicero is an example of how you don’t need bells and whistles and fluff to have a good story. It is straight to the point, and almost completely business.
And of course, we all know that since it is from Big Finish, it is a wonderfully put together audio.