Death and a Crocodile ~ Review with Author Q&A and Giveaway

Death and a Crocodile
By Lisa E. Betz

Livia Aemilia is less than pleased when her father breaks off the understanding that has been between her and her best friend Marcellus. Worse in less than 3 months, he has found another man willing to agree to a marriage arrangement. Determined to become her own woman, Livia's hopes are further dashed as Avitus is an Advocate with a quick mind who no doubt will keep her as stifled as her father tries to do. 

But in a moment her world is upturned when her father is murdered. When the facts don't match with the assumption of murder by robbers Livia and her brother become suspicious. But then her brother Curio is accused of the murder and Livia's fate may be in the hands of her conniving uncle. What's a girl to do? Investigate the murder yourself, of course.

There is just one little problem, Livia is just 16 years old, has no investigative skills, and has not frequented the unsavory sections of Rome that may hold the answers to seek. But with the help of her newest maidservant, she may have a chance of living through the experience but only if she can outwit a killer, her brother, her uncle, and the two men who want to marry her. And she'll need the prayers and assistance of those who share her new faith too.

Set in 47 AD Rome, Death and a Crocodile is an enjoyable read as the reader is taken on a journey through Ancient Rome. This is not your normal fiction story set in Rome that centers on Roman campaigns to expand and maintain their territories nor does it focus on entertainments the empire revealed in. Rather it focuses on a young woman and her close circle of friends, family, and servants and how she deals with a world that isn't ready for her independent ways. It is Livia's struggle to be something more and learning that sometimes limitations are not to squelch thought but are in fact a protective measure. 

I really enjoyed getting to know Livia and Roxana and would enjoy additional books featuring them as well as Curio and Avitus and those who share Livia's faith in Christ. Livia's faith is not a major focus of the book but it is mentioned on several occasions so it is an important part of who she is. Livia's youth is not mentioned really beyond the opening scenes with her but it is important to remember that she is a teenager though more mature than what one would expect in today's world, but this is a different world than ours.

If one is looking for a historical murder mystery with a Christian undertone that is not overly graphic or if you are looking for a fiction set during the Roman Empire this is one you will want to check out. The book is an easy read at 316 pages and the type is a decent-sized font so it is not an overly wordy 300+ pages. I actually learned a few things about this world and time that I had not previously learned during Ancient World history so this was a definite bonus in my opinion. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a well-written engaging read.

I was provided a complimentary copy of this book with no expectations but that I provide my honest opinion. All thoughts expressed are my own.

Death and a Crocodile by Lisa Betz
CrossLink Publishing
321 pages
ISBN: 978-1633573161

Sensible women don't investigate murders, but Livia Aemilia might not have a choice.

Rome, 47 AD. When Livia's father dies under suspicious circumstances, she sets out to find the killer before her innocent brother is convicted of murder. She may be an amateur when it comes to hunting dangerous criminals, but she's determined, intelligent, and not afraid to break a convention or two in pursuit of the truth. Plus, she's adopted a radical new faith that encourages her to believe a woman and a handful of servants can actually solve a murder.

Can she uncover the culprit before powerful men realize what she's up to and force her to stop? Or will her snooping land her in deadly peril?

A lighthearted historical mystery set in first-century Rome, featuring a feisty amateur sleuth, a cast of eccentric characters, and an unrepentant, sausage-snatching cat.

About the Author:

Lisa E. Betz worked as an engineer, substitute teacher, and play director before becoming an award-winning mystery writer. She draws inspiration from thirty-five years of leading Bible studies to create fast-paced mysteries set in the first-century world of the early church.

Lisa brings her analytic mind, quirky humor, and creative soul/unconventional mindset to all she writes. She is passionate about inspiring others (real and fictional) to become their best selves, living with intention, authenticity, and purpose.

In addition to historical novels, she has written humor articles, over seventy drama sketches, one full-length play, and a short non-fiction book. Her first mystery novel was a finalist in the ACFW Genesis contest and Death and a Crocodile was named the Gold Medal winner in the 2021 Illumination Book Awards in the Mystery/Thriller category.

She serves as Managing Editor of Almost an Author, a website by and for writers, where she also writes a monthly column called “The Intentional Writer.” She enjoys speaking to groups large and small on topics related to Roman history, writing, intentional living, and faith. When not writing, or speaking, she can be found volunteering at The Village Library of Morgantown or experimenting with ancient Roman cooking.

She resides in Pennsylvania with her husband of thirty-plus years and a rambunctious cat named Scallywag who may be the inspiration for the unrepentant, sausage-snatching Nemesis.

For more information on Lisa, visit www.lisabetz.com

“When I first began to dabble with writing, I thought I wanted to write middle-grade fiction,” says Betz. “It was only recently that I decided to attempt writing a historical mystery. I would have never guessed five or ten years ago that I would enjoy writing a mystery series with a snarky female lead.”

“Books can bring light by showing us things we didn’t know before or clarifying what used to be confusing,” says Betz. “Books can expand our universe in many ways, taking us into the lives of people in different cultures, different lands, different times, different societies. Books are powerful because they can change lives.”

Author Q and A:
1. What drew you to set a mystery in first-century Rome?
My interest in ancient Roman culture stems from many years of teaching Bible studies. I have
tried to absorb as much as possible about the culture and history of the Roman Empire so I
can bring the ancient world to life and make the Bible more relevant to modern Christians.
I chose the mid-first century because I couldn’t write a light-hearted story with a snarky
main character that was set during the Great Fire of Rome, or the persecutions that came
after that. I’ve chosen to set the novel during the reign of Emperor Claudius, which means
the story takes place a dozen years before Paul first visits the city.
One of the challenges I faced when researching this time period is a lack of “inside
information” about the earliest days of church history. Most of what we know about how the
early Christian churches functioned comes from later periods when persecution was a
problem and the Christians had been forced to become selective about who they allowed into
their fellowship. I have imagined the church at this stage was open to curious visitors and
had not yet developed the lengthy catechisms that converts were required to complete in
later centuries.

2. How much freedom did women have back then? Is it feasible for a female to be a
sleuth in that period?
The Roman Empire was very much a patriarchal society. That being said, women enjoyed
more rights during the Roman Empire than they’ve been allowed in most of the centuries
leading up to modern times. For example, women could inherit property, run businesses,
initiate lawsuits, and divorce their husbands. A clever and determined woman like Livia
could find ways to investigate a mystery, although she would encounter obstacles a male
wouldn’t face.
I knew there would be limits to what a young female sleuth could do without ruining her
reputation, so from the start, I knew she would need male allies to collect information from
places or persons inaccessible to her. She will be collecting those allies as the series
I have taken my inspiration for Livia from a host of other female sleuths who solve crimes
despite the constraints of their historical eras. A few examples include: Lindsey Davis’s
Flavia Albia, Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody, Margaret Frazers’s Dame Frevisse, and Jane
Finnis’s Aureila Marcella. (You might notice that two of the sleuths I mentioned also thwart
crime during the Roman Empire. So Livia is in good company.)

3. What is the significance of the coin shown on the cover of the book?
When my sleuth’s father is murdered, she finds an old coin on his body that has an image of
a crocodile on one side. From the start, she’s convinced it’s an important clue, although, in the
end, it doesn’t turn out to mean what she thinks it does. Despite her incorrect assumptions,
the coin leads her to important information and plays a part in the final solution.
This particular coin was minted in about 10 AD. The crocodile chained to a palm tree
represents the conquest of Egypt, when Augustus defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony. If
Livia had been paying attention during history lessons, she could have told you it was the
decisive victory that ended the civil war and allowed Augustus to become sole leader, which
eventually led to him becoming emperor, thus ending the Roman Republic and starting the
Roman Empire.

4. What kind of persecution does Livia face for her faith in Christ?
At this time the Christian church was in its infancy. It was operating under the radar of the
Roman government. When they noticed it at all, they thought it was a sect of Judaism, which
meant the earliest Christians enjoyed the same religious freedoms that were granted to Jews.
Once the authorities realized Christianity was a new and separate religion, things changed. At
that point, Christianity became a religio illicita, or an unauthorized religion, and therefore
open to government persecution.
Due to the early date, Livia doesn’t face active persecution from the authorities. She does
face disapproval from her parents and others. Her parents adhere to a strict notion of
traditional and respectable behavior. They would interpret Livia’s adoption of any non-
Roman religion as abandoning her heritage, which could bring dishonor to the family and
risk the disfavor of the gods. They would insist she give up her new beliefs and ban her from
visiting her Christian friends. To avoid this, she’d kept her faith a secret, but sooner or later
she’s going to have to admit it and deal with the consequences.

5. One of the issues your heroine faces in the book is an arranged marriage. What could
a woman of her day do about that?
A marriage would typically be arranged between the girl’s father and the groom. According
to Roman law, a father couldn’t force his daughter into a marriage if she didn’t consent to it,
so theoretically a woman had a say in the matter. But I doubt many girls really had a choice.
If a daughter defied her father’s wishes, she might face being disinherited or kicked from the
house. Few women could afford to take that risk.
Livia understands the realities of her society. She daydreams about swaying her father’s
choice, but she doesn’t really expect her father will listen to her. When her father dies before
finalizing the betrothal, she thinks she’s been given a lucky break. Her brother will take over
as her guardian and she’s confident she can talk him into letting her marry the suitor of her
But then her brother is accused of murder and it looks like her uncle may gain control of the
household. If he succeeds, he’ll force Livia to marry the husband of her worst nightmares.
The rest of the story is Livia’s attempt to control her destiny by proving her brother is
innocent so he can remain her guardian and protect her from her uncle’s schemes.

6. You mention a sausage-snatching cat in your book description. Is the cat an
important character?
I’ve always been a cat lover, so I decided to give my sidekick character a cat—specifically, a
stealthy black cat named Nemesis who lives up to her namesake (the goddess of retribution
and justice) by exterminating as many thieving vermin as she can catch. She’s a minor
character who tends to appear out of nowhere, often to do something naughty like steal a
bite of sausage. She adds a bit of tension or humor to the scenes where she appears.
Although Nemesis doesn’t actually assist in finding the criminals, Livia uses the cat to create
a distraction when she wants to slip away unnoticed. Who knows which of Nemesis’ feline
attributes will prove useful in future stories.

7. Have you tried any of the unusual ancient recipes you describe in the book?
A few. I made a pork stew with raisin sauce that was quite delicious. Another thing I’ve
experimented with is must cake. In my book, must cake is a favorite of Livia’s aunt. Must is
crushed grape pulp and juice and was a common sweetener. The recipe I tried was adapted
from Cato’s writings. It was fairly dense and strongly flavored with cumin, anise, and bay
leaf, with only a hint of sweetness. I’m sure the ones Livia purchases at Pansa’s bakery for
her aunt are sweeter, flakier, and more subtly flavored.
Roman cooking in the first century was very different from modern Italian cuisine. Many
foods we associate with Italy, such as pasta with red sauce, polenta, and cappuccino were not
available to the ancients. Tomatoes and corn, for example, are new world foods, which didn’t
arrive in Europe until the sixteenth century.
Also, ancient Romans favored certain herbs that are no longer typical, such as rue (very
bitter and potentially poisonous) and sylphium, which they loved so much they ate it into
extinction. Another popular flavoring was a salty sauce made from fermented fish called
garum. They used is as a condiment and as a common ingredient in sauces and stews.
With ingredients like those, many of the recipes handed down to us by the ancients don’t
sound very appealing. I’ll leave it to Livia and her friends to enjoy some of the odder recipes
without me.

8. What surprises did you encounter in your research?
Slavery in the Roman world worked very differently than our modern concepts. Possibly half
the population of Rome was slaves, and they faced a broad spectrum of living conditions,
from prisoners of war doing forced labor to educated men like doctors, tutors, or architects.
Some slaves were set up to run a business and actually had slaves of their own.
Slaves who served a wealthy household had a good chance of gaining their freedom, either by
earning enough money to buy themselves out of slavery or by being granted their freedom
for good service. It was common for wealthy men to free slaves in their wills. In fact, laws
were passed to limit how many slaves a man was allowed to free in his will.
Many freed slaves, known as freedmen, were granted citizen status, a valuable commodity in
the Roman world. Citizenship gave legal protections not granted to non-citizens. Thus a poor
freedman might enjoy rights denied to a wealthy merchant from a province like Gaul or
Syria. And not all freedmen were poor. Some became quite wealthy. Inscriptions show that
freedmen sometimes paid for large public buildings.
Then there were imperial freedmen, which are a class on their own. Many freedmen from the
imperial household became civil servants. Men like Narcissus and Pallas, who were
freedmen of Claudius, served as his most trusted advisors. They amassed vast fortunes and
wielded great power. Another example of a powerful freedman was Antonius Felix, who
served as procurator of Judea.
At the other end of the social spectrum, certain professions, such as actors, gladiators, and
prostitutes were considered infamia and had reduced rights even if they were citizens.

9. You started your professional career as an engineer. How did you end up writing
mystery novels?
I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up dreaming about becoming an author. English was
never my favorite class or even my third favorite. Throughout high school and college, I
focused on the analytical side of my brain, eventually majoring in mechanical engineering
and taking a job at a manufacturing plant.
And yet, all along I was nurturing my creative side as well: reading tons of books, attending
and participating in live theater, writing silly drama for my friends to perform. So you see,
stories and storytelling were always a part of my life. I love math and science because they’re
predictable and logical, but stories are what grab my full attention. Stories have the power to
transport me away from my reality to another world.
Story’s power to transport me happens when I’m writing as well as when I’m reading a book
or watching a movie. That’s what has captured my heart and sustained me through years of
learning the craft of writing.

10. How has your engineering background helped you in your writing career?
During my years as a stay-at-home mom, I often wondered if I’d wasted my time and money
majoring in engineering. I’d worked at a manufacturing plant for six years, but I hadn’t
found it as fulfilling as I’d hoped. For a while, I worked as a substitute teacher, where my
math and science background was put to good use. I wondered if maybe I should pursue
teaching full-time, but I never felt a strong enough passion to start that journey.

When my youngest went off to college I finally had to face this what-do-I-want-to-do-with-
my-life question head-on. Was I supposed to be an engineer? A teacher? A writer? I listened
to my heart and chose writing. I made peace with “quitting” my engineering career and I
choose to believe that those years weren’t wasted, even though I have moved on to other

So, to answer the question, my engineering background taught me to think analytically, to
solve problems, and to look for ways to improve things. These are all skills that are useful in
writing, especially a mystery where small details are important and clues have to be placed in
just the right spot. Sleuths, like engineers, must think logically and enjoy solving challenging
puzzles. Writers, like engineers, must look at their work with an eye to find what is working
well and what needs to be improved.

11. Where do you see this series going?
I am hoping that Livia will be solving mysteries for many years. I have a novella and two
additional mysteries plotted, with ideas for more. The second novel begins shortly after Livia
is married. (You’ll have to read the end of book one to find out who her husband will be.)
As the second novel progresses, Livia and her husband slowly move from the wary mistrust
of strangers to mutual respect. Neither entered marriage expecting to find love, but they will
eventually get there. As the series develops, they’ll learn how to become a team when it
comes to solving crimes.
Livia will join a house church near her new home, led by Asyncritus, one of the believers
mentioned at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. As important events in church history
occur, such as the Jerusalem council of Acts fifteen, Livia and her fellow believers will hear
about them and figure out how it affects them. It may be that Paul or Peter will make a
cameo appearance someday, but I prefer to focus on lesser-known characters.
One that intrigues me is the mention of believers in the household of Narcissus. Is this the
same Narcissus who served as secretary to Emperor Claudius and was one of the most
powerful men in the empire? Livia and her husband should know better than to get mixed
up with dangerous men like Narcissus, but a good novel is all about conflict, so who knows
what may happen.

12. What was your goal in writing this book?
My primary goal was to create an entertaining story for readers who prefer novels that don’t
include sex, violence, or swearing. However, I wasn’t interested in creating a typical
Christian historical romance. I have always been drawn to books that were different than
what everyone else was reading, and so I wanted to write a story that was a bit unusual.
That’s how I ended up writing a mystery set in first-century Rome. It combines the
intriguing setting of a far-off time and place with the action and suspense of a mystery.
I also wanted to create a main character with a strong voice, a quirky sense of humor, and a
moral worldview that could appeal to readers in both the Christian and secular markets. I
like novels where a Christian worldview is shown as a valid option without making a big deal
over it. My heroine is far from perfect, and she will have plenty of moral and spiritual
challenges to face as she grows in her faith and in her relationships. I hope her struggles will
be relevant and encouraging to readers.

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