Those who like their historicals with a touch of humor will welcome Australian author Corby's promising debut, set in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece. When the arrow-pierced body of Ephialtes, the main force behind democratic reform in Athens, literally falls at the feet of Nicolaos, a sculptor's son expected to follow in his father's footsteps, fate hands Nicolaos another career. Ephialtes's politician friend, Pericles, who appears on the scene moments after the murder, is impressed enough by Nicolaos's preliminary conclusions to hire him to solve the crime. Members of the Areopagus, the city's ruling council, had the most to lose from Ephialtes's policies, but the neophyte detective finds that not even his exalted employer is above suspicion. The bodies pile up as the investigation continues, leading to a dramatic climax in which Nicolaos's survival hinges on his cracking the mystery. Corby displays a real gift for pacing and plotting. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“Gary Corby comes through in a rare style....A good read that not only entertains but leaves the reader knowing a lot more about Classical Athens.” John Maddox Roberts on The Pericles Commission
“Gary Corby's ambitious series debut delivers an unexpected dividend--a lively sense of humor which leavens the weighty subject matter: the messy birth of democracy in Athens, attended by riot, revenge, and, of course, murder.” Steven Saylor, international bestselling author of Roma
“A promising debut...Corby displays a real gift for pacing and plotting.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Nicolaos is minding his own business in ancient Athens when a body falls from the Areopagus above. Pericles, a rising politician, arrives moments later, and together they identify the corpse as that of Ephialtes, leader of the democratic movement and Pericles's friend. After a brief conversation, Pericles determines that Nicolaos is a man of keen insight and commissions him to investigate the highly volatile murder. Corby uses the early chapters to explain for the modern reader everything from Athenian politics and the place of women to monetary matters and clothing. Once the story gets rolling, though, it moves along at a good clip, even borrowing some tropes from the noir subgenre—a beating for the hero, a femme fatale, and plenty of shifty characters. As he explains in his author's note, Corby draws the murder and many of his characters from historical documents, lending that much more believability to the story. VERDICT This series opener will appeal to historical mystery fans and readers who enjoy Lindsey Davis and Kelli Stanley.—Eric Norton, McMillan Memorial Lib., Wisconsin Rapids
In ancient Athens, the murder of a popular politician threatens the democracy itself.
Young Nicolaos, who narrates in first person, is walking down a street outside the city when a dead body literally flies through the air and lands at his feet. A grieving young man who arrives shortly after identifies the victim as distinguished statesman Ephialtes and himself as his protege Pericles, a fledgling politician and son of the influential statesman and hero Xanthippus. Ephialtes' misfortune could be Nicolaos' lucky charm. For some time, he's tried to avoid following in his sculptor father Sophroniscus' footsteps and to enter politics instead. So he eagerly undertakes the task of finding the killer who shot Ephialtes to death with a perfectly aimed arrow. Nicolaos quickly learns how far out of his depth he is. He makes a very amateurish impression on the imposing Xanthippus and has a hard time keeping up with a group of larger-than-life suspects, including the imperious priestess Diotima, the Machiavellian lawyer Archestratus and the gruff military leader Pythax. Nicolaos' family is no less colorful. His mother Phaenarete's brazen behavior is a frequent embarrassment, and the twitting of younger brother, the ironically named Socrates, a constant annoyance. One key question haunts the ambitious young sleuth: Was the murder personal or political?
Corby's debut novel is energetic, if a bit unfocused, and helpfully appointed, with a glossary as well as a detailed "Time Line to Democracy" spanning more than 100 years and a very entertaining characters list featuring emblematic quotations.
Read an Excerpt
A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay facedown in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow protruding out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.
It was obvious he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him anyway, perhaps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fingertips, from where I had touched his wound, was slippery and wet but already beginning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.
It doesn’t normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one directly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the council chambers of our elder statesmen. The other to the left, but much farther away, was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the political heights.
I was about to rise when I heard the footsteps of someone coming down the road, and my immediate thought was the natural one: this might be the murderer coming to make sure of his victim, or perhaps the killer might lean over the ledge and shoot me too. I stepped backward to take cover at the side of the path, at a place deep in shadow, and waited, with no weapon other than the short dagger any citizen might carry. It wasn’t much but it would have to do, so I gripped the hilt in my right hand, and was aware of the stickiness of sweat in my palm.
A man came into sight, walking downhill from what could have been either rock above me. The man stopped and exclaimed when he saw the body lying in full view. He stepped forward and leaned over, much as I had done myself. A glance up the path showed me there was no one behind him. The opportunity was too good to miss, so I stepped out of the shadows, took two quick steps, and placed my dagger at his back.
He flinched and started to turn, but I pressed the blade firmly to dissuade him. I was ready to send it home if I had to.
“Do not move,” I said. “Do not stand up.”
He remained bowed over the victim, and without turning to look at me he said, “So, you are going to murder me too?”
“Me?” I said, surprised. “Of course not, I didn’t kill him.”
“There’s no point denying it, why else would you have a dagger at my back?” There was no fear in his voice, only contempt.
“Because you killed him.”
“Not I. You saw me come down the path.”
“That’s where he died. He fell from above.”
The man looked up and saw the ledge directly above us. “I see. Because I came down the path you think I’m here to make sure my victim is dead, but I give you my word I haven’t murdered this man.”
“That doesn’t count for much.”
“You’re right, though perhaps the fact I hold no bow helps?”
The same objection had occurred to me, and I had already thought of the simple answer. “You could have thrown it away before descending.” If he had, it would not be far.
The man nodded. “Yes, I had a feeling you were going to say that, but it seems to me a murderer is somewhat unlikely to throw away his weapon and then stroll past his victim. Shouldn’t I at least have walked in the opposite direction, knowing what I would find if I came this way?”
His point was very persuasive, and I’m sure he felt my hesitation because I saw the muscles in his shoulders relax a trifle. That irritated me, so without removing my dagger I said, “Let’s find out more. Turn him over.”
He said carefully, “To do so I will have to stand.”
The man grabbed the body and heaved. The arrow made it difficult, but the body slowly turned and we saw his face.
I gasped. Lying in the dirt before us was the man who had brought full democracy to Athens.
“Dear Gods, it’s Ephialtes!” the man cried.
“B‑but . . . why would anyone want to kill him?” I stammered. “Everyone loves Ephialtes.”
The man shook his head. “The people might have loved him, but think of the men he took the power from!” Then he snarled, “Could they be so brazen as to kill him in their own chambers? An undeniable crime?”
I boggled at what he was saying. “You think the Council of the Areopagus murdered Ephialtes?”
“Didn’t he just fall from their rock? They killed my friend in revenge for what he did to them.”
He ignored my dagger and fell to his knees to examine the body, confirmed Ephialtes had departed for Hades, and wept softly.
I stood with my dagger hanging from my hand, wondering what this meant for me. With Ephialtes’ death the Council of the Areopagus might resume their traditional rule, and if that happened then it would matter once again what family you came from, who your father was. If the democracy failed, I would have no chance of rising in society, and I would be doomed never to be more than apprentice to my father. It was a personal disaster that I couldn’t bear to contemplate.
The man still wept over the body, which was enough to convince me it was safe to turn my back on him. There was something I had to do, and quickly. I ran up the path to the fork in the road, took the turn to the right, and stopped at the edge of the Areopagus, where I peered about. If anyone stepped out from cover to take a shot I would be down the path and back to the Agora before he could put arrow to string. But no one did; the killer was gone.
I returned down the path up which I’d run, and inspected the bushes alongside, being careful to keep an eye at all times on the ledge above us. The man bent over Ephialtes was done weeping but continued to kneel as he watched me.
“What were you doing?” he asked.
“Looking for a bow.”
He sputtered, “You still suspect me?”
“No, not anymore. There’s no bow here, and you haven’t had time to lose it farther.”
He nodded. “Who are you, young man?”
“I am Nicolaos, of the deme Alopece, son of Sophroniscus the sculptor.”
He hadn’t anything to say to that. I hesitated, expecting his name in return, and not getting it. He’d called Ephialtes “my friend.” He looked down at the corpse and I followed his gaze, thinking as I did that it was astonishing how quickly a man can be reduced from greatness to nothing. The death of this man had the power to change Athens forever.
“And who are you, sir?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.
“I am Pericles, of the deme Cholargos, son of Xanthippus.”
I hesitated. “Would that be the Xanthippus who—”
“Is a member of the Council of the Areopagus, which has just murdered my friend Ephialtes. Yes, that Xanthippus.” Pericles spoke grimly.
My mouth hung open. This was a man with problems.
“It might not be as you think,” I said warily. If a whole Council of men had been atop the Areopagus murdering Ephialtes, they had managed to disappear with astonishing alacrity.
“What do you mean?” he demanded.
I waved my hand at the arrow. “It’s not a close-range weapon. If someone pointed a bow and arrow at you, what would you do?”
“Duck, swerve, charge my attacker, run away?” he suggested. “I certainly wouldn’t stand still.”
“And an arrow square in the chest? Is that the position for a man who knows he’s a target?”
Pericles nodded. “Ephialtes did not see death coming, and the Rock of the Areopagus is small. Therefore the killer was not on the Areopagus, or perhaps he was hidden. Let’s see if there’s anyone there to tell us more.”
Since I was a young man of no consequence I was happy for Pericles to lead the way. Besides which, if I was wrong and the killer remained hidden up there, Pericles would be the one used for target practice.
I had walked up the Panathenaic Way from the Agora to the Acropolis many times in my life, but not once had I stepped onto the Areopagus. I looked about with interest. The council met upon rock that had been chiseled to create a flat base, and about it stone had been cut away and smoothed to form seats. Elsewhere the Rock of the Areopagus was as rough as any outcrop. There were a few bushes, several thick enough to hide a man. I walked over to the spot where Ephialtes must have been standing. It commanded a fine view of the Agora to the north, where I could see tiny figures going about their business, setting up their stalls for the day, placing their wares, all of them unaware that their world had just changed. The wide, paved Panathenaic Way snaked southwards and upwards from the Agora to where the body of Ephialtes lay. I couldn’t see anyone walking up the road, but with morning well advanced on such a fine day, that wouldn’t last. To my right the Acropolis loomed high above me, a great solid fortress of almost unclimbable stone. A saddle of land separated the Areopagus from the Acropolis. I looked down into the valley to see Ephialtes’ body below. Yes, this was the spot. The force of the blow must have pushed him over the edge; I could see a splash of blood on an outcrop where he bounced off the rock face on the way down, pushing him still farther away. I turned around and scanned the rest of the Rock. It was clear to me that whoever had fired the arrow had either hidden among the seating of the council, or popped out from behind a bush, or perhaps was someone Ephialtes knew and did not fear.
There was no one there but a couple of slaves, old men tidying the place. It was early morning, when the Councilors would be about their own business.
“You two there!” Pericles barked. The slaves dropped their brooms and came to him. “What happened here?”
They looked blank. “We’re cleaning, sir,” one said. “A man has just been murdered on this rock. Tell me what you saw.”
The slaves quaked.
This was no way to handle it. It is the law that slaves must be tortured when they testify in court; the greater the crime, the greater the pain.
“We saw nothing, sir,” the first said.
“And we didn’t hear nothing either,” the second added for good measure.
They would have been fools to say anything else.
I said smoothly, “I’m sure these men aren’t witnesses, Pericles.
They would have raised the alarm if they’d seen anything,
wouldn’t you, men?”
Both nodded vigorously.
“But perhaps you can tell us, does anyone come here in the mornings?”
“Sometimes there’ll be a Councilor, sir, and someone will come to talk to him, official-like.”
“What happens then?”
“Don’t know, sir! We disappear until it’s over. Orders.”
“And this morning?”
“Don’t know, sir! We only just returned.”
“Yes, sir! The Councilor ordered us to clear off.”
“Who! Who was it?” Pericles demanded.
The man shrank back, looking at Pericles in fear.
“But, sir, isn’t that why you’re here? Didn’t you say he died this morning?”
“What are you talking about?” Pericles asked.
The slave looked perplexed. “Why, sir, your father, Xanthippus,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t see anything. He ordered us away.”