Book Review: The Marathon Conspiracy
by Gary Corby
Soho Crime, 2014
The two most engaging crime-solvers of the ancient world, Nicolaus and Diotima, are back in Gary Corby’s latest murder mystery set in fourth-century Athens. And as usual with a plot-maker of such finesse as our author, there’s more than one mystery unfolding here.
Nicolaus and Diotima have no sooner returned to Athens from their adventures abroad than they’re embroiled in yet more mayhem: first, at the Sanctuary of Artemis girls finishing school where Diotima was once a pupil, one girl has been killed – apparently by a bear – and another girl is missing, and second, in a cave near the Sanctuary has been found the skill of Hippias, the Greek tyrant who thirty years ago defected to the Persians (“he was so hated that men still spoke about how awful he was; so hated that the people had rebelled against him”) and has been assumed all this time to have died in Persia, making the appearance of his skull on the outskirts of Athens doubly troubling – especially since the two Sanctuary girls in question were the ones to find the skull in the first place.
It all has the makings of not only a crime but a scandal, and that makes it the concern of Athens’ current tyrant-in-all-but-name, Pericles, who summons Nico and charges him with learning the truth about the skull. At the same time, the headmistress of the Sanctuary of Artemis has come to her former student, Diotima, with a parallel request: find out what really happened to the poor dead girl – and maybe, with the gods’ help, find the missing girl before it’s too late.
Diotima is motivated by school-ties loyalty, and Nico feels the same pull toward obeying Pericles that all the rest of Athens feels:
It was a strange fact that Pericles, who wielded enormous influence, had no official position at all. The source of his power was that melodious voice, and his astonishing ability to speak in public. Men who would otherwise be considered perfectly rational had been known to listen to Pericles as if bewitched, and then do whatever he said … That a man with no official position wielded so much power had become a source of unease among many of the better families, as well as among the elected officials, who were intensely jealous of his easy command.
The normal worry of outcry if the skull – and its implications – become common knowledge is smartly inverted here: Athens turns out to be full of ambitious men who’d like nothing more than to be labelled with the ‘crime’ of having killed Hippias, as Nico and Diotima soon discover:
“My name is Hegestratus. I’m a candidate for the post of city treasurer in the next election.”
“So Glaucon is running, too.”
“I fail to see the relevance,” I told him. “Glaucon has this moment confessed to the murder of Hippias, the last tyrant of Athens.”
“That’s utter bull droppings,” snapped Hegestratus.
“How do you known?” I challenged him.
“Because I killed Hippias. I’ve come to confess.”
Readers of this wonderful series will already know to expect the light touch and entertaining dialogue with which our author keeps his plots racing along (at first in parallel, and then, in a couple of extremely well-orchestrated scenes, in collision, or even collusion), but every new volume further highlights the tricky thing Corby so consistently manages to create: comedic mysteries that still have heft. The genre is full of momentarily-amusing fluff (crime-solving cats, etc.) and also has its share of historical whodunits that are fairly heavy going. But combining the best elements of both is a much more difficult thing to do than it looks, in large part because making it look easy is part of the job. In the manner of what Lindsey Davis and David Wishart give readers for ancient Rome, Corby presents an ancient Greek world that’s vibrantly, gawkishly alive; if you haven’t tried this series yet, The Marathon Conspiracy is the perfect place to start.