on March 3, 2004
One of the most original new works of fiction of this past year is THE ATHENIAN MURDERS. It is a multifaceted and multilayered novel that is much more than an historical mystery. The story concerns the translator as much as the Greek characters. Ultimately, it asks the question, what is reality?
In Ancient Greece, the body of a young man turns up in a field and is initially assumed to be the result of a hunting accident. The body was consumed by wolves. However, Diogoros, the youth's tutor at the academy, wants the death investigated. He hires Heracles Pontor who is called "the Decipherer of Enigmas" to look into the matter. Diogoros decides to accompany Herakcles and so we have the investigator and his foil (or Watson). As more bodies start turning up, it soon becomes apparent that there is no question that a murder did occur .
At the same time, the translator begins to notice more and more of the text is aimed almost directly at himself and conveys that to the reader by his use of footnotes. This subplot eventually becomes as critical as the actual text of the novel.
THE ATHENIAN MURDERS is not simply a murder mystery. It is much deeper than that. It questions our very existence and, as such, becomes almost a philosophical treatise. The presence of Plato lends added weight to the ideas espoused. This unique novel was nominated for two separate dagger awards by the CWA of Great Britain. It was nominated for the Gold Dagger for crime fiction, as well as, the Ellis Peters Award for best historical mystery novel. This should indicate how hard it is to truly categorize. However, one thing in which there is little doubt is that it is a truly superior reading experience albeit somewhat unfocused.
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!
on October 23, 2002
Readers who love historical mysteries set in ancient times, such as Stephen Saylor or Lindsey Davis's Roman series, may well find themselves adrift in this postmodern metafiction riddle whose original Spanish title, "The Cave of Ideas" more accurately presages the contents. At first, the book appears to be a translation of an ancient whodunit. The mutilated body of one of Plato's students is discovered outside Athens and his tutor engages Heracles, The Decipherer of Enigmas (i.e. detective), to find out what happened. However, the anonymous translator's notes soon start to intrude, as he excitedly notes that the ancient whodunit apparently contains "eidesis", a literary technique allegedly used by the ancient Greeks to convey secret messages in texts.
As the book progresses, the two narratives become more an more entwined. It's difficult to describe further without spoiling it, but essentially, the translator grows increasingly convinced the manuscript contains a personal message for him, and his footnotes grow correspondingly lengthy and agitated. The mystery in ancient Greece progresses in relatively pedestrian fashion, with more bodies following the first, and a running argument concerning the merits of empirical reason vs. Platonic philosophy as additional food for thought. However, the mystery of the tale's translator begins to eclipse it. Switching back and forth between the two narrative lines takes some getting used to, but the device will be familiar to readers of Eco and Borges, among others and is integral to the book.
Somoza is plays a tricky game, stringing the reader along with the dual narratives, only to land a wallop of a suckerpunch at the end. His literary devices are nothing new, and nor is his ultimate point (which can't be revealed here), but it's a clever book, bound to entertain and please plenty of folks, especially those with an interest in ancient Greek philosophy.
on June 3, 2002
This Platonic murder mystery that ultimately discusses Plato's Theory of Ideas through eidetism comprises two stories. The first is that of Heracles Pontor (who in his physical description comes across nicely as the ancient Hercule Poirot - not William Baskerville) and the second the self-doubting brush with insanity of the author-Translator.
The premise of the novel is that a young member of Plato's Academy - Tryamachus - has been killed by wolves. A small inconsistency on the body, plus his mentor's - Diagoras - last moments with his student leads Hercules to take on the job (though he professes he is solving it for himself, even as he takes a fee) to discover the culprits. Along the way there are three other murders and a great deal of philosophizing as he works hs way through the intellectual and physical barriers thrown up to prevent him finding the truth.
The one problem with this intellectual murder mystery - although along the same vein as Eco, but not as good - is that the reader is constantly forced to interrupt the narrative to read the subplot of the modern day Translator as a series of footnotes. This causes The Athenian Murders to become fractured and halts the easy reading flow of narrative
However, the novel succeeds admirably on many different levels. At a basic level the denouement is as you would expect for a mytery set at this time and place. Combined with the endless aim for philosophical purity, vying with the descent into decadence beguilingly offered by mysterious cults the novels moves neatly from scene to scene laying level upon level of twist and suggestion as to both motive and fact.
Hercules laconic decipherments offset nicely against the sense of mortification that his 'hirer' - Diogenes - develops as each murder occurs and he is forced to accept Reality. The plot itself is simple but the - at first - self-congratulatory nature of the Translator who feels the need to explain each and every clever image to the reader becomes a trifle wearisome. It is an interesting dichotomy. Many people would say the point of a novel is that every single reader 'sees' the words and images in a unique way at each reading. What the novel is trying to prove/disprove is that the eidetic nature of the book means every single reader will always arrive at the same Key no matter when or where the book is read.
The nature of this philosophical argument and the novel's attempt to both explain, discuss and demonstrate it is what makes The Athenian Murders thought provoking.
on September 9, 2002
It's a story within a story, within another story. It's an eidetic novel. It's a philosophical progression. It's a self-reflexive text. It's a quest for truth. It's a mystery, in many senses of the word. It's "The Sixth Sense," but rendered in prose and about a thousand times better. It's pure poetry in parts. It's a novel about ideas and words, and whether one can exist without the other.
It's one of the best books I've read in years.
It's difficult to say anything specific about "The Athenian Murders" without spoiling the wonder of it completely, but I can safely give it my highest recommendation. About halfway in, I gave up trying to figure out how it would end and just let myself enjoy its twists and turns. I've rarely been more richly awarded by trying out a new novel.