01/28/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Review: Lustrum by Robert Harris

Once upon a time, novelists could be simultaneously serious and popular. Hemingway comes to mind, but even moreso Steinbeck, who had less literary pretension and more sustained and pointed topical engagement. Graham Greene aimed at once for contemporary relevance and durability, and more often than not hit the bulls-eye with later novels such as The Quiet American, The Comedians and The Human Factor. Lesser, or at least less remembered, writers such as Morris West and Nevil Shute took seriously both the craft of storytelling and the novelist's responsibility to have something of public significance to say.

The British writer Robert Harris is a throwback to this tradition: a novelist who embraces a public role -- more for his books than for himself as a celebrity or personality -- and who aspires both to entertain and to edify. None other than Nelson Mandela has called him "a writer who handles suspense like a literary Alfred Hitchcock." He works with aplomb in several genres, from the fascinating counterfactual Nazi thriller Fatherland, to a fun and gripping imagining of Roman life and bureaucracy in Pompeii, to a brilliant, queasily political contemporary murder mystery involving a lightly fictionalized Tony Blair in The Ghost. Across an impressively wide range of subjects, Harris brings to bear a distinctively British blend of political shrewdness and lightly carried but impressive and genuine erudition. He's one of those Englishmen who really did study Latin at one of those fancy high schools, but who is well-bred enough not to leave his less couth reader feeling inferior for not having done so.

Lustrum (2010), retitled Conspirata for its U.S. edition, makes good use of its author's presumptive classical education. A sequel to Harris's wonderful previous novel Imperium, it purports to be a portion of a recently unearthed candid memoir written by Tiro, slave and private secretary to the great Roman statesman and orator Cicero. The device provides a delicious fly-on-the-wall vantage for Harris to imagine, and us to witness, what really went on in the late days of the Roman Republic. It's like watching a political multi-chariot pile-up.

Part of the fun of historical fiction generally, and a big part of the point of this novel in particular, is that we know all too well how things turned out in real life. There's a lot of truth in the truism that historical fiction is really about the present day. "There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events," reflects Tiro (and through him Harris, of course) at one point. "If my work has a moral, this is it." Forty pages later, in case the reader hasn't gotten the message yet, there's this:

Cicero sighed and said, more to himself than to any of us, "I wonder what men will make of us a thousand years from now. Perhaps Caesar is right -- this whole republic needs to be pulled down and built again. I tell you, I have grown to dislike these patricians as much as I dislike the mob -- and they haven't the excuse of poverty or ignorance." And then again, a few moments later: "We have so much -- our arts and learning, laws, treasure, slaves, the beauty of Italy, dominion over the entire earth - and yet why is it that some ineradicable impulse of the human mind always impels us to foul our own nest?" I surreptitiously made a note of both remarks.

Such didactic points are well-taken, but Harris is too good a storyteller to lay them on thick. Lustrum is the best sort of historical fiction, replete with drawing-room skulduggery and tawdry goings-on that show how little human beings have changed over the past 2,000-plus years. While I eagerly await the third installment in the promised trilogy I'll busy myself enjoying Harris's latest novel The Fear Index, a thriller set in the thick of the recent world financial crisis.

Ethan Casey's's next book, Home Free: A Real American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: or Join his email list here.