'Conspirata' by Robert Harris

As the second installment in British novelist Robert Harris' trilogy of cutthroat politics and intrigue during the late Roman Republic opens, Marcus Tullius Cicero is about to assume the consulship of Rome, the position of supreme authority he had secured against all odds in "Imperium," the first volume in the series. What should be, in "Conspirata," a time of great joy and satisfaction for the legendary politician of antiquity is jolted by the shocking discovery in the Tiber River of a young slave who appears to have been killed and mutilated as part of an ominous ritual.

Called immediately to the scene, Cicero does his level best to prevent details of the outrage from circulating, but of far deeper concern to him is who among his enemies could have sanctioned such a despicable act, and to what end.

Rome being Rome, there is no shortage of possibilities, but since this is not a conventional whodunit -- Harris, whose books include the 1992 bestseller "Fatherland," is far too clever a writer of speculative thrillers for that sort of treatment -- we learn in fairly short order that Catilina, one of Cicero's defeated rivals for the consulship, had sacrificed the boy as part of a high-level plot to murder Cicero and take control.

There is little doubt as to the fate that awaits the five aristocrats unmasked in the conspiracy; what does become problematic in the months that follow Cicero's consulship, however, are the expedient measures he took to execute the traitors, complications that threaten him with an untimely demise of his own. Of even greater moment -- indeed, it is the ever-present back story in "Conspirata" -- is the palpable erosion of the Roman Republic, and the inexorable march toward authoritarian rule. To this end -- and about to take center stage in his own right -- is Julius Caesar, rumored but never proved to have been a part of the plot.

Set between 63 and 58 BC -- from the time of Cicero's consulship to when he goes into hurried exile, "the winds and currents" to decide his fate -- "Conspirata" is narrated, once again, by Tiro, Cicero's devoted slave and able amanuensis to the consummate wheeler-dealer of the age. Tiro wrote a biography of Cicero that was lost during the Middle Ages, making it fair game for an inspired retelling. In the hands of Harris, Tiro is an amiable raconteur, a marvelous storyteller with an impeccable gift of recall and an exquisite ear for the memorable quote.

When Caesar finds it prudent to divorce his wife, Pompeia, without a moment's hesitation, for instance, Cicero is duly impressed. "That was the most ruthless thing I ever saw in the Senate," he tells Tiro later. "I'm certain he only made up his mind to divorce her when I asked him that question. He realized it was the best way to get himself out of that tight corner. You have to hand it to him -- most men wouldn't abandon their dog so casually."

It should be noted that "Conspirata" was published in England last year under the title "Lustrum," a word used by the Romans to identify a "five-year period" occasioned by the taking of a census, and also for a kind of ritualistic cleansing of the state performed at the end of every one. Given the tapestry Harris so brilliantly weaves here -- and the five years he describes -- it seems a perfectly apt and rather ironic title to boot; why it was changed, the publisher has yet to say.

Interestingly, British reviewers had a grand time last year matching contemporary politicians with those they believed Harris, a former correspondent for the BBC and columnist for the Sunday Times, might be lampooning in his spot-on characterizations. With Caesar and Cicero, Pompey and Crassus, Lucullus and Hybridia to choose from, not to mention a pimply-faced Mark Antony hovering in the wings, the possibilities for comparisons with present-day public figures are numerous. His dedication of the book to "Peter," moreover -- Peter Mandelson, currently the first secretary of state, and a figure of some controversy in England a few years ago -- has only added to the speculation.

Because Harris is working within the parameters of recorded history, we know where this is all headed. There will be no deus ex machina creature to come swooping in at the close of volume three and alter the unalterable; of that we can be certain, which makes the gripping nature of Harris' narrative all the more remarkable. It is a first-rate performance, one that bodes well for the denouement to come.

Basbanes is the author of many books, including the forthcoming "About the Author," a collection of literary profiles.