Sam Spade in a Chariot

The names Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler usually conjure images of detectives, wiseguys, and an unbearably cute terrier named Asta — not gladiators, emperors, and Christian-eating lions. Nonetheless, San Francisco author Kelli Stanley calls her latest novel, The Curse-Maker, “Roman noir” and says it's an homage to works by those two authors despite its ancient setting. You see it immediately in the plot, which mirrors Hammett's The Thin Man. “When Roman physician Arcturus and his stunning wife, Gwyna, arrive at Bath for a holiday, a dead body is floating in the sacred spring,” the publisher's description says. Hello, Nick and Nora Charles. What follows is the chase of a vengeful killer that leads through cemeteries, underground water channels, and mines. (And if Nick and Nora are our guides, there must be fancy ancient cocktails in there somewhere.) In addition to producing a good (and light-hearted) mystery, Stanley aims to show that people's behavior hasn't changed much in 2,000 years, and a scenario that fits 1940s America is at home in ancient Rome as well. She would know: She has a degree in classics, and her first book with this set of characters, Nox Dormienda, was the subject of a classics lecture at Stanford University. Today Stanley also reads from her noir novel set in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1940, City of Dragons.
Mon., Feb. 7, 7 p.m., 2011

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