Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Pericles commission

One of my oddities is my love of historical mystery novels especially those set in classical times. I know they’re fluff, but I enjoy them all the same especially when they are believable.

Stories, such as Lindsey Davies Falco series work because they are believable and set is in a sufficient complex and litigous society to support a complicated plot.

I recently read The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby – a mystery novel set in Athens just after the Persian wars. And this must have presented a problem to the author.

While Athens was becoming rich, there were no gleaming buildings on the Acropolis, instead Athens was a cluster of mud brick houses inside a wall huddling beneath the Acropolis hill. While there had been temples on the Acropolis they had probably been mudbrick and wood affairs that were burned in the Persian invasion. Before then Athens had probably been a fortified hilltop settlement not unlike the Celtic oppida Ceaser encountered in Gaul some four hundred years later.

In short, Athens in 461BC probably looked a lot like some of larger Berber towns in the south of Morocco that the French never quite controlled and remained essentially autonomous and outside the rule of law as understood in Rabat until relatively recently

And in the same way as these Berber towns lacked much in the way of external authority imposing the rule of law, Athens lacked much of the apparatus of a complex state, instead being a collective of individuals huddling together for protection, whose relations with one another were regulated by customary law, clever argument  and precedent.

And while doubtless murders took place in dark corners there is at first sight not much to make a story out of: A kills B, B’s family seeks out and kills A. Phillip Marlowe it is not.

What Corby does is simple, but incredibly clever. He builds a plot around the political fighting and backstabbing ( literally) that must have accompanied the end of oligarchical rule and the establishment of Athenian democracy. As such the story encompasses corruption, murder, double dealing and all these other fine accompaniements of a social revolution.

And in doing this he makes an enjoyable story, all the more enjoyable due to his understanding of the history of Athens, and because one could just about imagine it was true …

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