Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld, translated by Clara Winston, and illustrated by Charlotte Kleinert. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2002 (originally published 1956). 272 pages.
What It Is: Middle grades historical fiction/mystery
What It’s About: A group of young Roman schoolboys get embroiled in a mystery when one of their own, Rufus, is accused of writing “Caius is a Dumbbell” on a sacred temple, their schoolmaster (Xanthos) is beaten up and robbed, Rufus is thrown in the notoriously terrible Roman prison, and nothing seems to add up. Set during Ancient Rome’s heyday, the novel covers quite a bit of cultural and historical information along the way as the boys team up with their schoolmaster to solve the mystery of “who dunnit” so that they can secure Rufus’s release from prison before he is sent off as a slave.
What Works: Lively pacing keeps the story moving along, and the mystery isn’t completely clear until the very end. Myriad cultural and historical details are inserted cleverly and casually; the book does not feel like a textbook in the least, but astute readers will learn a lot about Ancient Rome in the process.
What Doesn’t Work: The book was originally written in the 1950s, and it feels like it in parts. Some terms (like “oriental”), some clunky writing and choppy parts, and the near absence of female characters hint at the novel’s age. That’s not necessarily a negative; it depends on the audience! Those who enjoy old-fashioned fiction will likely enjoy this more than those who prefer a more crisp, contemporary style (with more nuanced characters).
What I Think/Recommend: This is a fun addition to any study of Ancient Rome (which is why this title lands on so many curriculum lists that involve Ancient Rome!). It works equally well as a read aloud or independent read, but it won’t hold up to the same level of careful literary study that other novels might. There is one scene where the villain dies a violent death; it is mentioned, but not graphic. At other times, other violence is alluded to (including the death of some children). The complexity of the mystery, especially when coupled with all the Roman names and customs, is another a factor that keeps this book firmly in the middle grades range and not as a read aloud to much younger children, particularly sensitive ones.
Note: This title appears on several Christian homeschool curriculum lists (or informal lists from within the Christian homeschool community). It’s worth pointing out that this is not a Christian title in any sense and would work just as well as part of a public school library collection.