A Pinch Of Pure Cunning – Reviews

Cover of A Pinch of Pure Cunning A Pinch of Pure Cunning, published by Matador, 28 July 2020. Paperback ISBN: 978-1-83859506-7

A Pinch of Pure Cunning is an anthology of six short stories set at the time of Ancient Rome, four in Northern Britain and two in Rome itself. The four British mysteries feature Aurelia Marcella, the innkeeper of the Oak Tree Mansio, who is the protagonist in the author’s four full-length novels…A strong woman with determination, courage and common-sense, which she uses to solve mysteries, large or small.

In ‘Wild By Name, Wild By Nature’, Aurelia and her sister, Albia, are delighted when Ferox, The Wild Man, a famous gladiator, spends the night at the mansio, but when Ferox becomes ill it could prove disastrous for the mansio’s reputation. To counter the rumours that the Oak Tree’s food is responsible for poisoning Ferox, Aurelia is determined to discover the truth. The story “A Pinch of Pure Cunning” also provides the title for the anthology and in it Aurelia uses a cat and superstition to help confirm the identity of a thief. In “The Golden Princess” Aurelia conducts a locked room investigation, although the crime is not murder but the theft of a valuable statue. Another theft occurs in “The Single-Handed Soldier”, this time the missing item is a bust of the Emperor Domitian and some gold coins, and once again Aurelia has to discover the truth before the reputation of the mansio is damaged.

The two stories set in Rome have different male protagonists. In “Hide and Seek”, Marius, a member of the Praetorian Guard, finds himself in a desperate situation when a letter from his brother is intercepted by the Emperor’s spies and its contents appear to commit the ultimate treason, that of criticising the Emperor Nero’s singing…Marius has to work out the reason behind his brother’s fatal indiscretion and placate Nero before they are both executed. “The Cleopatra Game” is based on the story that the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, had dissolved her pearls in red wine…When a bride-to-be plays the same game, it has deadly results, and Rufus, a nobleman’s bodyguard, investigates.

All six stories are cleverly crafted with engaging protagonists, neat plots, and fascinating historical backgrounds. They are all excellent in themselves, as well as making a delightful introduction to the Aurelia Marcella novels. A Pinch of Pure Cunning is a very good read, which I recommend. –Carol Westron, Mystery People e-zine, October 2020

A Pinch of Pure Cunning is a collection of short stories by Jane Finnis, author of the popular Aurelia Marcella historical mystery series. Several stories are about Aurelia, a Roman settler in Britannia, who with her sister Albia runs the Oak Tree Mansio on the road to York. The anthology also includes a couple of tales set in Rome itself. Titles are capitalised in my rundown of these diverting stories. Aurelia relates an incident from the sisters’ early days running the Oak Tree. A famous gladiator professionally known as Ferox The Wild Man — his supporters call him WILD BY NAME, WILD BY NATURE– arrives with his trainer Durus. They are on the way to games at Eburacum (York) where he intends to wipe the arena floor with the local champion. But Ferox is taken violently ill during the night and his trainer alleges poison is involved. Naturally the inn staff are suspected and Durus threatens to ruin the Oak Tree’s reputation. Readers may think they have guessed the culprit — until they reach the twist at the end of the story.

Aurelia is visited by her old friend Clarilla, sister-housekeeper of the local Chief Town Councillor. It seems some of her personal belongings and valuable pieces of jewelry have disappeared. Her household is harbouring a thief, and she asks Aurelia’s advice on how to find and prove who the culprit is. Aurelia recalls her grandmother’s saying that “If the truth is hard to find, remember A PINCH OF PURE CUNNING is worth a box of brute force”. And so it turns out. The motive for the thefts was a bit of a surprise although on reflection fitting the culprit.

Early one morning Valens, an officer of the Ninth Legion, arrives in great haste at the Oak Tree, enquiring about THE GOLDEN princess. This is a statue of his mother’s favourite mare, intended as a surprise gift for her birthday. It was delivered to the inn the previous afternoon, to be collected this day. But the statue has vanished overnight, despite being locked into a guarded and inaccessible room. Aurelia helps solve the mystery of who was responsible and how the seemingly impossible crime was carried out.

In HIDE AND SEEK, at the court of Nero, Praetorian Guard Marius is pleading for his life. An intercepted letter from his brother predicts that Nero’s plan to give a concert in Naples will be disastrous, and warns Marius not to attend. This, to Nero, is high treason. But whispers of a plot to assassinate Nero are already known to the authorities. Marius deduces there is a hidden message in the letter but has only a very short time to find and decode it to clear himself and his brother of capital charges.

THE CLEOPATRA GAME takes place In the rich Roman household of Tadius Sabinus. Rufus, bodyguard to Sabinus, is present at a banquet to celebrate the forthcoming nuptials of Sabinus’ brother Marcus, to Egyptian heiress Chloe. She is fascinated by Cleopatra and insists on childishly imitating the queen in everything she does. It’s a marriage advantageous to both houses, but Sabinus is not thrilled about it because Chloe humiliates his brother in public and laughs at him in private. At the banquet her play-acting leads to Marcus’ death. A clue from an unexpected quarter points to whodunnit. Another twist ending rounds off the sad tale.

Much-admired former legionary Sergius Fronto, nicknamed THE SINGLE-HANDED SOLDIER after losing his left arm while in service, now sports a wooden replacement. With winter approaching Aurelia gives him work in exchange for his keep until warmer weather arrives and he can move on. When Lady Caelia breaks her journey at the Oak Tree, a valuable piece of her luggage is stolen, and Fronto is suspected. A recent snowfall enables the thief to be easily tracked down, resulting in more than one revelation when he is caught.

As Jane Finnis observes of the times in which these stories are set, “human nature then was much as it is now, including jealousy and courage, love and hate, greed and honour, along with the feeling that justice ought to prevail. Readers of these entertaining stories will enjoy travelling the road to Aurelia’s inn in a collection sure to leave them eager to read Jane’s novels about Aurelia and the visitors to the Oak Tree. –Author Mary Reed, the Retiring Writers blog, http://ericreedmysteries.blogspot.com/