on January 30, 2004
"The Cave of Ideas", this book's title in the original Spanish, is actually a far better one; certainly more apt. "The Athenian Murders" doesn't quite bring across the right tone that of a viciously intelligent piece of a philosophy. It more creates the impression of a simple historical whodunit, which is rather misleading. For it is FAR more than that, and anyone who picks up this book just wanting an enjoyable historical novel may find themselves confounded. Because this book is, as that original title suggests, a novel of ideas. It is not just a piece of philosophy, this book IS philosophy.
It's set-up is original and brilliant, leading to the fact that we actually have here TWO first-person narrators. One, Diagoras, is a contemporary of Plato, a pedagogue at his academy in Athens. He is writing an account concerning the brutal murder of one of the sons of a leading Athenian dignitary. His body was found on a wooden hillside, and the condition of the corpse initially leads the discovers to think he has been savaged by wolves. Diagoras calls in the "Decipherer of Enigmas", Heracles Pontor (note the initials!) to help investigate the murder. Our second narrator is the modern-day translator of this ancient Greek manuscript, who speaks to us only through his footnotes as he translates the text. Gradually, as he works, another story appears to be emerging in the writing, buried in layers of hidden meaning. It seems that there is a message beneath the main story, and the unnamed translator grows obsessed by it. The more he translates, the deeper the roots seem to extend, until eventually the astonishing, confounding truth is revealed...
This is probably the most important literary thriller since Donna Tartt's The Secret History, or Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. It won the UK's CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the year, and I don't think there has ever been a more deserving winner. This is the writer's sixth novel, but his English language debut, and it marks out a remarkable, astounding talent. It is incredibly hard to convey the sheer quality of this text (somehow that word seems more appropriate than "novel") is without revealing its brilliance, the stunning, jaw-dropping final revelation which shafts this novel into the stratosphere of brilliant works of literature and ideas. As I say, though this starts as a philosophical novel, with meaning within meaning, with its end it actually BECOMES a genuine piece of actual philosophy itself. It's ending explodes it into the category, "masterpiece". It's definitely a book for the thinking-reader, though, some of the ideas explored take time to get your head around, and I'm sure that the end can provoke hours of thought, cogs turning round and round in the brain. It did for me, certainly. However, there is more to this brilliant mystery than just its end; don't let my effusive praise deceive you!
The historical sections are fascinating, wonderfully detailed; crafted with the love of a scholar. They're not overbearing, though, and they only add to the story and the characters. It's also worth assuring you that Somoza balances the two parallel stories brilliantly. Never is there more importance placed on the truth of the ancient mystery than there is on the truth of the modern one, so effortless does he temper them, balance them. Nor does he allow the interjections of the "translator" to interrupt the flow of the mystery too much. It happens a little, but that is to be expected, I suppose.
This is a brilliant novel of stories within stories, circles within circles. It isn't for you if you like your crime fiction straightforward and cosy (as well as being complex, there are one or two slightly brutal themes), but if you like to be forced to think, then this is the best novel you could have the wisdom to select!