Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Marathon Conspiracy

Wow I am really behind on this, the books are piling up.  I am not be absolutely mad for anything I've read recently, hence the delay in writing about them.

I know I like to be transported to another time and place in my reading, but I had heretofore not considered the classical world as a possible destination.  While Gary Corby's series set in Ancient Greece was on my radar, I hadn't done anything about it (as is the case with the dozens of other items on the "to read" list).  Hence my pleasure when the latest in this lightweight but charming series arrived as part of the Soho International Crime Club.

Yes, I did just say that The Marathon Conspiracy (Soho Crime, 2014) was lightweight.  I can't think of another adjective to describe a story that takes place in a place and time so very removed from our own, yet utilizes language that sounds so familiar.  "Maybe the wacky, naked priestess who talks in riddles is an optimist" says Our Hero Nicolaos at one point. (75)  The Ancients were wacky?  "The thing is, Zeke," he starts another sentence (94), while a priestess says to another much later "Welcome to management."  (289)  The thing is, it is hard to imagine that the Ancients used such modern-sounding constructions and ideas.  Will the youngsters start peppering their speech with, um, like next?  But of course, who is to say that they didn't talk slangily, or whatever their version of it was?  Their sense of humor and concept of tragedy have withstood the test of time, and their playwriting - referenced often in this story, thanks to Aeschylus' big supporting role - defined the genre.  As did their incredibly complex and effective government and social administrative structures.  It follows naturally:  why wouldn't they bemoan the idea of management-level bureaucracy?

Readers should not be deterred by my use of the word lightweight, however, because that implies a negativity that I don't ultimately feel for this lively story.  Nicolaos is trying to make a living at being the Hellenic version of a private investigator, and gets by based on intelligence, good connections, and a smart and sassy fiancee named Diotima.  In The Marathon Conspiracy, a girl student at a temple school is found dead, and another is missing.  Pericles, that Athenian operator, asks him to look into it so Nicolaos and Diotima take a break from planning their wedding to investigate.  It becomes apparent that this is not just some local bad guy or errant temple staffer, but only the latest development in a story that begins in the recent past, at the epic battle of Marathon.  The ending will surprise, and then charm a bit, as - not really a spoiler alert - Nicolaos and Diotima's wedding provides a delightful coda.!

If you know your Classical Greeks, you'll feel very much at home here because Corby's tale is populated with real characters - Pericles, Aeschylus, Socrates (he is actually Nicolaos' younger brother - and is always asking questions, ba-dump-bump).  It feels a little silly at first, especially given the occasionally anachronistic language.  But the plot moves briskly, and it becomes apparent that, other than language, Corby pays extraordinary attention to historical detail.  Buildings, rituals, dress, ceremonies are all carefully described but not boringly so, and the result is a vivid picture of ancient life and society.  Corby's afterword supported my sense of this, by revealing what of his plot was drawn from the historical and literary record (a lot).  This 15 pp. Author's Note saved the book for me, as did the detailed timeline (four more page) that followed.  The Marathon Conspiracy won't take you long to finish, but it might provide you with a few pleasant hours very far away from wherever you are.

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