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Book Review: Sacred Games

By (May 22, 2013) No Comment

sacred games

Sacred Games

By Gary Corby

Soho Crime, 2013

Sacred Games, the third installment in Gary Corby’s utterly winning series of murder mysteries set in Periclean Athens, opens on the eve of the 80th Olympiad in 460 BC, the titular sacred games which are taking place in a pervasive atmosphere of international tension. Athens is in a long war with Corinth, and Pericles is nervous that dour but powerful Sparta might find some reason to come into the war on Corinth’s side.

So it’s among other things a political nightmare when Arakos, the odds-on Spartan champion to win the brutal pankration, is found dead before the games can begin. His greatest rival in the sport was an Athenian named Timodemus, and in a flash those international tensions look likely to spark outright war. Pericles turns to Timodemus’ closest friend, a young Athenian named Nicolaos, to investigate the murder with the help of a Spartan named Markos, who has no intention of playing Watson to anybody’s Holmes:

“Nico, we might have to agree to disagree on our politics, and the Gods and all men known your city and mine are mortal rivals, but fortunately we don’t have to agree on such things to run an investigation. Surely we two can agree on facts, even if our interpretations are at odds?”

Under the suspicious attention of the judges of the Games, the two men are sworn to their bipartisan inquiry:

I took a slice of piglet from the altar – the Butcher of the Games had begun his bloody work – and with thumb and forefinger threw the dripping meat into the burning brazier. The meat sizzled at once, and I smelled burned flesh. My oath to Zeus was complete.

Markos stepped forward and proceeded to make the same oath I had. He spoke slowly in a clear, carrying voice and didn’t stumble at all.

The oath was complete. Criminal investigation was an Olympic event for the first time in history.

Corby dramatizes the ensuing adventures with a wonderful easy-going confidence (buttressed by obvious but unobtrusive research), and Nicolaos is aided in those adventures not only by the sultry and fiercely independent Diotima (familiar to undergraduates from Plato’s Symposium) but also by his own little brother, a precocious lad named Socrates. The simmering antagonisms of his setting don’t stop Corby from indulging quite often in the kind of humorous bits of business that Lindsey Davis first popularized in her long-running Falco mysteries, as in the priceless scene where hapless young Nico encounters the great Olympiad poet Pindar, who turns out to be every bit as needy as authors in all other eras:

 “I thought it was, er … very nice,” I said, desperately trying to remember anything he’d said.

He pounced. “Nice? What were the nice bits?”

“Well, er … I liked your choice of words, and -“

“Was there anything you didn’t like? Don’t be afraid to critique! I’m very good at taking criticism.”

“No! No! I loved it. I’d definitely buy a scroll with this –“

“Does this allusion work? I was pleased with it myself.”

“It’s terrific!”

He gave me a stare. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

“Er …”

Like its two predecessors, Sacred Games has an extremely well-orchestrated climax and a key revelation you’ll happily kick yourself for not having spotted earlier. And like all the best murder mysteries, these books don’t depend on revelation: they’re a joy to re-read.

They’re also a joy to recommend. Mystery lovers shouldn’t miss these books – instead, they should betake themselves to Soho Crime’s website and snatch them all up. A much-maligned binge might be in order.