January Magazine's continuing series of guides to the best in crime fiction's subgenres
The Athenian Murders
by José Carlos Somoza
Published by Abacus UK
314 pages, 2002
by Margaret Doody
Published by Bodley Head UK
288 pages, 1978
The House of Death
by Paul Doherty
Published by Constable & Robinson UK
287 pages, 2001
Gates of Fire
by Steven Pressfield
Published by Doubleday
386 pages, 1998
The Last Red Death
Published by Hodder & Stoughton UK
352 pages, 2003
2004 has become quite the banner year for Greece. First, the expected, as the country has slowly overcome construction issues, power outages, controversy and a large dose of worldwide suspicion and apathy to host this month's Summer Olympic Games. Then, the unexpected, which occurred in early July with Greece's stunning upset victory in the Euro 2004 soccer tournament. These developments not only highlight the Hellenic Republic's modernity, but they echo far earlier times, when this Mediterranean nation was the preeminent superpower in terms of both athleticism and intellectual pursuits.
In many ways, there's a strong disconnect between the Greece most people think of and the Greece that exists now. What usually comes to mind is the country of ancient times, of Aristotle and Plato, Euripides and Homer, of Trojan Wars and Alexander the Great and symmetrical architecture. It's a completely different story today, as gyros and souvlaki have been incorporated into more current cuisines, and vacationers head to the nearby isle of Mykonos for some serious sun-baking and people-watching. Local customs are caricatured in movies such as Zorba the Greek and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And like most European countries, the Greeks take their soccer extremely seriously.
Although Greece, both past and present, has inspired a fair number of fictional works, it comes as a surprise to discover that there really aren't many mysteries set in the country. For some reason, ancient Rome gets all the glamour and glory, while Greece is comparatively neglected. Still, there are numerous gems to be found within or just outside the genre limits. Perusing these works, you may well find yourself immersed in the days of the first Olympiad, or be more interested in catching up with the Games' modern manifestation. So, in an approximately chronological order, here are the best offerings in what might be described as a fledgling subgenre -- one that has great room and potential to expand over the next few years:
1. The Athenian Murders (2002), by José Carlos Somoza. When this heretofore unknown Cuban writer took home the 2002 Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger, a great many eyebrows were raised in the crime-fiction community. The work was translated from Spanish; it incorporated footnotes (!), and appeared to be more austere than the usual crime-fiction entries. There was no reason for worry, though, as Somoza's sixth novel (but the first to be translated into English) is a stunning work of literary crime that uses the book-within-a-book conceit in an original -- yes, original -- way, with a denouement that might make some readers scratch their heads but will leave most in a state of shock and awe. Certainly, that was the case with me. At first, we're led to believe that the novel is a murder mystery set in ancient Greece, with a Poirot-like detective, dubbed the "Decipherer of Enigmas," attempting to solve the case. But then the footnotes break in from an unnamed translator, whose task it is to interpret this obscure 2,000-year-old book. The conceit works because the translator realizes two things: one, that the original text contains secret images and codes, which begin to obsess him. And two, things begin to get very, very weird. The text starts blatantly spelling out messages that could only be intended for the modern-day translator. Is he losing his mind, or is something far stranger going on? Somoza creates an ingenious tale that takes the mystery plot to a level no one else has likely even conceived of, let alone attempted. There's extra irony because The Athenian Murders is translated; did the English translator undergo a similar set of anxieties? No one's talking ...
2. Aristotle Detective (1978), by Margaret Doody. The Times Literary Supplement wondered, upon the release of this novel way back in 1978, "why has no one ever thought of this before?" It's a legitimate question as Doody, an ancient Greece scholar, wraps an intriguing mystery around the shoulders of her reluctant investigator, the famed philosopher Aristotle. His advice is solicited by Stephanos, a young trainee charged with the task of defending a family member on suspicion of murder. At first glance, it looks like a frame-up, but Philemon -- the family member in question -- has many things to hide that only Aristotle can unravel. Though this book met with considerable acclaim, Doody disappeared, seemingly for good -- until the second installment, Aristotle and the Poetic Justice, was finally published in 2002, a mere 24 years after its predecessor. The series is up to four installments now, extending its life with Aristotle and the Secrets of Life (2003) and Poison in Athens (2004). Since there's no telling what sort of mischief the renowned scholar can get up to, chances are very good that this series will continue for quite some time.
3. The House of Death (2001), by Paul Doherty. It's almost frightening how prolific Doherty is -- along with covering practically every facet of history in his novels and mysteries, he's a full-time headmaster at a Catholic school in Essex, England, which no doubt curtails the amount of time he spends on his fiction. But Doherty manages to infuse his mysteries with a strong sense of place, just the right amount of historical detail and a light touch where density is usually of the order. His formula is certainly in evidence in his fairly recent series featuring Macedonian legend and Greek Emperor Alexander the Great. The House of Death begins in the thick of Alexander's march toward military greatness, as he and his troops conquer all parts of Persia and beyond. Along for the ride is his boyhood friend and royal physician Telamon, who has been entrusted by Alexander's mother, Olympia, to protect her son from harm. This assignment is more than justified, as those who are guiding Alexander through Persia begin to die off in brutal fashion. Is an unknown force to blame, or can these deaths be traced back to someone within the ranks who wishes to unseat Alexander from power? Telamon must employ all of his faculties and draw upon his friendship with the Emperor to find the killer in the midst of battle. This series continues with 2002's The Godless Man (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 9/02) and 2003's The Gates of Hell, but concludes in The Death of Alexander, due out in October. Interestingly, Doherty also examines Alexander the Great from a non-fiction standpoint in the recently released book Who Killed Alexander the Great?
4. Gates of Fire (1998), by Steven Pressfield. Whereas Doherty uses his historical knowledge to craft a fairly traditional mystery story, Pressfield -- also known for having penned The Legend of Bagger Vance, which became a fairly ho-hum movie -- goes for a more epic feel in his retelling of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The focus shifts away from the Athenians to the Spartans, who are fighting for their lives against the invading Persians, and Pressfield creates an atmosphere of constant turmoil and tension. By the end, one feels as if he had actually been a part of the battle, so vivid are the descriptions and so forceful the action. Although Gates of Fire is only tenuously connected to the crime-fiction genre, enthusiasts will be hooked immediately by the level of intrigue and the furious pace of the story. Unsurprisingly, Pressfield went back to the well for Tides of War (2001), his re-imagining of the Peloponnesian War, and further back in time for The Last of the Amazons (2003), which theorizes about the emergence of the all-female tribe amid the early days of the Athens city-state. Interestingly, a more direct comparison with Doherty's work will be made in late October, when Pressfield's own novelistic take on Alexander the Great, The Virtues of War, makes its American appearance.
5. The Last Red Death (2003), by Paul Johnston. So far, the Contemporary Greek Mystery is a subgenre that does not yield many entries. But in a very short period of time, one writer has made that niche his very own. Paul Johnston began his crime-writing career with an Edinburgh-based private-eye series set in the not-that-distant future. Starting with 2002's A Deeper Shade of Blue, though, he tracked back to the present and moved his focus to Greece, where he spends a good portion of every year. Alex Mavros is a half-Greek, half-Scot P.I. possessing the requisite amount of tortured angst in combination with a dry wit and a unique perspective on Greek society. It's a society in near-perpetual turmoil, especially as Johnston portrays it, with current cases taking root in secrets from several decades back. The Last Red Death is more of a political thriller than a P.I. novel, but that's no criticism -- far from it, as the narrative moves briskly through a murky landscape of family secrets, terrorist acts and political minefields in order for Mavros to finally locate the mysterious Iraklis, the leader of a group responsible for a three-decade crusade to terrorize Athens. The Last Red Death is all the more timely as its publication coincided with the arrest of a similar terrorist group, and it raises questions about the history of such acts in a country that will be a prime target for potential terrorism this month. The Mavros series, which has proven to be a success in the UK (though it hasn't yet been published in the States), continues in September with The Golden Silence.
If, after scrutinizing the above wares, your desire for all things Greek is still not slaked, these other offerings might do the trick:
Deadline in Athens (2004) introduces Greek novelist Petros Markaris to American readers. After a lengthy career writing non-fiction and screenplays, Markaris, who appeared at the latest Harrogate Crime Festival to promote this book in the UK (where it was published by Harvill as The Late Night News), only started crafting fiction a few years ago, and mysteries even more recently than that. Deadline is the first in a series starring Inspector Costas Haritos, a junta-trained homicide detective who is constantly embroiled in the intrigues and corruptions that pile up as a result of a still-nascent democracy fighting with the remnants of Greece's old dictatorial ways. In this first installment, Haritos is called upon to investigate the murder of Janna, a celebrated TV journalist killed in the very studio where she was about to report on a story that would make serious waves in the highest circles. Though not a fan of her journalistic methods, Haritos is compelled to find out what happened to her, especially when Janna's successor is murdered as well. In the process, he learns more than he ever needed to about the seamy side of the Greek media -- and sidesteps danger at every turn.
After winning the 2002 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for his much-acclaimed noir novel, Adios Muchachos, Cuban author Daniel Chavarria stepped back far earlier in time for his next book, The Eye of Cybele (2003). Not that the ancient Greek setting deterred this author from throwing in a healthy dose of warped sexual politics and demented characters -- the same elements familiar from Chavarria's previous novels. In Cybele, a sacred jewel disappears, and the resulting tumult involves the philosopher Socrates, a wily prostitute and a priest who is up to anything but good.
Although Kerry Greenwood's trio of stories about some of ancient Greece's most formidable women aren't strictly mysteries, the Australian author is primarily recognized for her Phryne Fisher crime novels, set in the 1920s and now 13 installments strong. Greenwood, who has also dabbled in science fiction and young adult novels, wrote rich, historically detailed accounts of the lives of Delphi (1995), Cassandra (1996) and Medea (1997), attempting to enliven their characters far beyond what is currently known of those legendary figures.
Michael B. Edwards does something very different in his historical series -- he doesn't make any use of Alexander the Great, and he sets his books a good two centuries earlier than the usual 4th century B.C. timeframe. Instead, he concentrates on other, more esoteric matters, as in Murder at the Panionic Games (2002), set in the city-state of Priene. Bias, a high priest of Poseidon, is getting the city ready for the games and for the gods' appeasement -- but when one of the star athletes is murdered, and implicates the priest in the process, Bias must investigate the murder to clear his name. A second installment, Murder at the Festival of Apaturia, is forthcoming.
In the end, whether your urge is to plumb the depths of heroic history or stay a little more current, these mysteries offer you plenty of opportunity. Still, one wonders if this isn't a subgenre that can be further explored -- especially on the contemporary side. This year's Olympiad may not only be watched by millions of sports fans, anti-doping watchdogs and terrorists, but by publishers looking for potential story ideas.
As for me, I've got some serious Olympics-watching to prepare for. It isn't just the actual sport that's a marathon. | August 2004
Other installments in the 5 of a Kind series: