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The Athenian Murders

The Athenian Murders

4.0 1
by Somoza, Sonia Soto (Translator)
The English debut of one of Spain's most dazzling younger writers -- a postmodern murder mystery set in ancient Greece.

In this brilliant, highly entertaining, and intriguing novel, Jose Carlos Somoza intertwines two darkly compelling riddles, forcing us to confront the ways in which we interpret reality.

In ancient Athens, one of the pupils of


The English debut of one of Spain's most dazzling younger writers -- a postmodern murder mystery set in ancient Greece.

In this brilliant, highly entertaining, and intriguing novel, Jose Carlos Somoza intertwines two darkly compelling riddles, forcing us to confront the ways in which we interpret reality.

In ancient Athens, one of the pupils of Plato's Academy is found dead. His idealistic teacher Diagoras is convinced the pupil's death is not as accidental as it appears, and asks the famous Heracles Pontor, the "Decipherer of Enigmas," to investigate. As the death toll rises, the two men find themselves drawn into the dangerous underworld of the Athenian aristocracy, risking their own lives to solve the riddle of these young men's deaths. Simultaneously, a second plot unfolds: that of the modern-day translator of the ancient text, who, as he proceeds with his work, becomes convinced that the original author has hidden a second meaning in the text, one that can be interpreted through certain repeated words and images. As the story advances, however, the translator is alarmed to discover references to himself, which seem to address him personally in an increasingly menacing fashion.

An original and unsettling literary mystery, The Athenian Murders introduces a beguiling new talent to an American readership.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a highly original and literary approach to crime fiction, Spanish writer Somoza's gripping English-language debut interweaves text from an ancient Greek manuscript with an account of the growing anxieties of its modern translator. In the Greek text, Heracles Pontor, Decipherer of Enigmas, is called upon to solve the grisly killings of young men at Plato's Academy of Philosophy. Athenian tutor Diagoras, a sort of Watson to Pontor's Holmes, comes to ask the sage's help after the corpse of a handsome ephebe (adolescent) is discovered. It is thought at first that he was attacked by wolves, but neither of the ancient sleuths accepts this explanation, and their investigations lead to interviews with family members, mistresses and schoolmates of a mounting number of victims. Insidiously, the translator himself becomes a murder target in the unfolding plot. As he looks for secret messages in the story (left in accordance with a Greek literary technique called eidesis), he begins to notice inexplicable allusions to himself in the text: Someone is reading the scroll right now, deciphering our thoughts and actions.... Such references become more threatening near the suspenseful buildup to the final chapter, especially when he identifies a statue of himself in the studio of a rapacious sculptor rumored to be part of a sacrificial cult terrifying the city. Somoza relies on lengthy footnotes to convey his translator's insights and growing fears, sometimes causing the modern and the ancient narratives to trip over each another, but generally moving the tale along smoothly. Underlying the text are homoerotic and pagan themes, giving an unvarnished and compelling view of Greek life in 400 B.C. (June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In his U.S. debut, ambitious Spanish novelist Somoza parallels a murder at Plato's Academy and the predicament of a contemporary translator, who finds that a text about the murder speaks to him in a direct and frightening way. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A footnote opens this playful postmodern mystery, set in ancient Greece and in the tortured mind of its fictional translator; that is, the first chapter heading carries a note in which said translator mentions a few of his dilemmas in reconstructing and translating the original Greek text, "The Cave of Ideas, written by Philotextus of Cheronnese." The translator's accelerating woes are revealed in lengthy footnotes to the text, which concerns the killing of a beautiful Athenian youth named Tramachus, a pupil of Plato's Academy. Venerable doctor Aschilos thinks the wounds suggest an attack by wolves, but questions remain (for one thing, the heart is missing). Fueled by his affection for Tramachus' mother Itys, abrasive old investigator Heracles Pontor takes the case, assisted by effete Academy teacher Diagoras and an owlish figure known only as the Decipherer. As Heracles plumbs some of the city's arcane cults, both carnal and intellectual, that translator struggles to combine what he has found of the original text with a recent, popular version by Montola, an inferior scholar he clearly envies. What does the translator's feud with his wife Helena have to do with the novel, and why is he incarcerated? The distinction between footnotes and the main text, between the fictional investigation and the "real" translation, becomes increasingly blurred, but a late appearance by Plato enlivens the proceedings considerably. Though the plot's deliberate obscurities both intrigue and annoy, the rich, elegant writing will please all comers. Good thing, since mystery fans should be warned that Somoza is more interested in metaphysical questions and literary subtleties than traditional storytelling.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.42(h) x 0.91(d)

Read an Excerpt

a novel

By José Carlos Somoza
Translated by SONIA SOTO

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2000 José Carlos Somoza.
Translation copyright © 2001 Sonia Soto.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0374106770

Chapter One

THE CORPSE lay on a fragile birch-wood litter. The torso and belly were a confusion of splits and tears crusted with congealed blood and dried mud, but the head and arms appeared unblemished. A soldier pulled aside the corpse's robes for Aschilos to examine it. Onlookers gathered, slowly at first, then in great numbers, forming a circle around the macabre remains. A cold shiver ran over Night's blue skin, and the golden manes of the torches, the dark edges of the chlamyses, and the thick horsehair crests on the soldiers' helmets waved in the Boreas. Silence had open eyes: All gazes followed Aschilos's movements as he performed the terrible examination. As gently as a midwife, he parted the lips of the wounds, then probed the horrific cavities with meticulous attention, like a reader sliding his finger over inscriptions on papyrus. His slave held a lamp over him, shielding it from the buffeting wind with his hand. All were silent save old Candaulus. When the soldiers had appeared with the corpse, he had started shouting in the middle of the street, waking the neighborhood, and there now remained a faint echo of his earlier raving. He limped around the circle of onlookers, apparently unaffected by the cold, though nearly naked, dragging his withered left foot—a blackened satyr's hoof. He held out reedy, emaciated arms, leaning on the others' shoulders, crying, "Look at him! He must be a god! This is how the gods descend from Olympus! Don't touch him! Didn't you hear me? He's a god.... Swear your allegiance, Callimachus! You, too, Euphorbus!"

    A great mane of white hair grew untidily on his angular head like an expression of his madness. It waved in the wind, half-covering his face. But the crowd paid him little attention—people preferring to look upon the corpse rather than at the madman.

    The captain of the border guard emerged with two of his men from the nearest house, replacing his long-maned helmet: He believed it appropriate that he should display his military insignia in public. He peered through his dark visor at the gathered crowd. Noticing Candaulus, he gestured dismissively, as if brushing away a bothersome fly.

    "Silence him, by Zeus," he said, not addressing any of the soldiers in particular.

    One of them approached the old man and, raising his lance, with a single horizontal blow, struck the wrinkled papyrus of his abdomen. Candaulus gasped midsentence and doubled up soundlessly, like hair flattened in the wind. He lay writhing and whimpering on the ground. The crowd was grateful for the sudden quiet.

    "Your report, Physician?"

    The doctor, Aschilos, took his time to answer, not even looking up at the captain. He disliked being addressed as "Physician," even more when the speaker seemed contemptuous of every man save himself. Aschilos might not be a soldier, but he came from an old aristocratic family and had had a most refined education: He was conversant with The Aphorisms, observed the Hippocratic oath, and had spent long periods on the island of Cos, studying the sacred art of the Asclepiads, disciples and heirs of Asclepius. He was not, therefore, someone a captain of the border guard could easily humiliate. And he already felt insulted: He had been awakened by soldiers in the dark hours of the early morning and called to examine, in the middle of the street, the corpse of the young man brought down on a litter from Mount Lycabettus. And he was no doubt expected to draw up some kind of report. But as everyone well knew, he, Aschilos, was a doctor of the living, not the dead, and he believed that this shameful task discredited his profession. He lifted his hands from the mangled body, trailing a mane of bloody humors. His slave hurriedly cleansed them with a cloth moistened with lustral water. He cleared his throat twice and said, "I believe he was attacked by a hungry pack of wolves. He's been bitten and mauled.... The heart is missing. Torn out. The cavity of the hot fluids is partially empty."

    The murmur, with its long mane, ran through the crowd.

    "You heard him, Hemodorus," one man whispered to another. "Wolves."

    "Something must be done," his companion replied. "We will discuss the matter at the Assembly."

    "His mother has been informed," the captain announced, the firmness of his voice extinguishing all comments. "I spared her the details; she knows only that her son is dead. And she is not to see the body until Daminus of Clazobion arrives. He is the only man left in the family, and he will determine what is to be done." Legs apart, fists resting on the skirt of his uniform, he had a powerful voice, accustomed to imposing obedience. He appeared to address his men, but also evidently enjoyed having the attention of the common people. "As for us, our work here is done!"

    He turned to the crowd of civilians and added, "Citizens, return to your homes! There is nothing more to see! Sleep if you can.... Part of the night remains!"

    Like a thick mane of hair ruffled by a capricious wind, each strand waving independently, the humble crowd gradually dispersed, some leaving separately, others in groups, some in silence, others commenting on the horrifying event.

    "It's true, Hemodorus, wolves abound on Lycabettus. I've heard that several peasants, too, have been attacked."

    "And now this poor ephebe! We must discuss the matter at the Assembly."

    A short, very fat man remained behind, standing by the corpse's feet, peering at it placidly, his stout, though neat, face impassive. He appeared to have fallen asleep. The departing crowd avoided him, passing without looking at him, as if he were a column or a rock. One of the soldiers went to him and tugged at his cloak.

    "Return home, citizen. You heard our captain."

    The man took little notice, and continued to stare at the corpse, stroking his neatly trimmed gray beard with thick fingers. The soldier, thinking he must be deaf, gave him a slight push and raised his voice. "Hey, I'm talking to you! Didn't you hear the captain? Go home!"

    "I'm sorry," said the man, though actually appearing quite unconcerned by the soldier's command. "I'll be on my way."

    "What are you looking at?"

    The man blinked twice and raised his eyes from the corpse, which another soldier was now covering with a cloak. He said, "Nothing. I was thinking."

    "Well, think in your bed."

    "You're right," said the man, as if he had woken from a catnap. He glanced around and walked slowly away.

    All the onlookers had gone by now, and Aschilos, in conversation with the captain, swiftly disappeared as soon as the opportunity arose. Even old Candaulus was crawling away, still racked with pain and whimpering, helped on his way by the soldiers' kicks, in search of a dark corner to spend the night in demented dreams. His long white mane seemed to come alive, flowing down his back, then rising in an untidy snowy cloud, a white plume in the wind. In the sky, above the precise outline of the Parthenon, Night lazily loosened her mane, cloud-decked and edged with silver, like a maiden slowly combing her hair.

    But the fat man whom the soldier seemed to have woken from a dream did not follow the others into the mane of streets that made up the tangled central district. Instead, he appeared to hesitate, to think twice about his course of action, before setting off unhurriedly around the small square. He headed toward the house that the captain of the guard had left moments earlier and from which there now emerged—he could hear it clearly—a terrible wailing. The house, even in the dim light of dawn, revealed the presence of a family of considerable wealth—it was large, on two floors, and had a vast low-walled garden spread out before it. At the entrance, a short flight of steps led up to a double door flanked by Doric columns. The door was open. A torch hung on the wall, and a little boy was sitting on the steps beneath it.

    As the man approached, an old man appeared, staggering, at the door. He wore the gray tunic of a slave. At first, because of his unsteady gait, the fat man thought he must be either drunk or crippled, but then he realized that the slave was weeping bitterly. The old man barely glanced at him as he passed; clasping his face in his filthy hands, he stumbled up the garden path to a small statue of the guardian Hermes, mumbling disjointedly. The man could occasionally make out "My mistress!" and "Oh, woe!" The man turned his attention back to the boy, who was still sitting on the steps, his small arms crossed over his legs, watching without a trace of shyness.

    "Are you a servant in this house?" he asked, showing him a rusty obol.

    "Yes, but I could just as well be a servant in yours."

    The man was taken aback by the swift answer and clear, defiant voice. The child couldn't be more than ten years old. A strip of cloth was tied around his head, only just controlling unruly blond hair the color of honey, although it was difficult to tell the exact shade in the torchlight. His small pale face bore no signs of Lydian or Phoenician origins, indicating instead that he was of northern, possibly Thracian, descent. With his small furrowed brow and lopsided smile, his expression was full of intelligence. He wore only a gray slave tunic, but seemed not to feel the cold, despite having bare arms and legs. He caught the obol skillfully and tucked it in the folds of his tunic. He remained sitting, swinging his bare feet.

    "For the moment, all I need is for you to announce me to your mistress," said the man.

    "My mistress is not receiving anyone. A big soldier, the captain of the guard, came and told her that her son is dead. Now she is screaming and tearing out her hair, and cursing the gods."

    And, as if his words required proof, a prolonged chorus of shrieks was suddenly heard, coming from deep inside the house.

    "Those are her slave women," said the boy calmly.

    The man said, "Listen. I was a friend of your mistress's husband, and—"

    "He was a traitor," said the boy, interrupting him. "He died a long time ago. He was condemned to death."

    "Yes, that's how he died: He was executed. But your mistress knows me well, and, since I'm here, I'd like to offer her my condolences." He took another obol from under his tunic, and it changed hands as swiftly as the first. "Tell her that Heracles Pontor is here to see her. If she doesn't wish to see me, I'll leave. But you must go and tell her."

    "I will. If she doesn't receive you, do I have to return the obols?"

    "No. Keep them. But I'll give you another if she sees me."

    The boy jumped to his feet.

    "You know how to do business, by Apollo!" And he disappeared through the dark doorway.

    The untidy mane of clouds in the night sky hardly changed shape while Heracles awaited his answer. Soon, the boy's honey-colored head appeared in the darkness.

    "Give me that third obol." He smiled.

Inside, the house was a dark labyrinth of corridors framed by stone arches like great open maws. The boy stopped in one of the gloomy passages to place his torch in the mouth of a hook, but he couldn't quite reach it. Although the young slave didn't ask him for help—he stood on tiptoes, straining to reach it—Heracles took the torch from him and slid it smoothly into the iron ring.

    "Thank you," said the boy. "I am not yet fully grown."

    "You will be soon."

    Issuing from unseen mouths, the clamor, roar, echo of grief seeped through the walls, as if all the occupants of the house were lamenting as one. The boy—Heracles couldn't see his face as he walked in front, diminutive, vulnerable, like a lamb heading into the open jaws of some enormous black beast—suddenly sounded as deeply affected as the rest.

    "We were all fond of the young master," he said, without looking around. "He was very kind." And he gave a little gasp—or it could have been a sigh, or a sniff—and Heracles wondered if he was crying. "He only ever had us beaten when we did something really bad, and he never punished me or old Iphimachus.... Did you see the slave who came out of the house as you arrived?"

    "I didn't pay him much heed."

    "Well, that was Iphimachus. He was the young master's pedagogue. He's very upset by the news." And he added, more quietly, "Iphimachus is a good man, if a little stupid. I get on well with him, but then, I get on with almost everyone."

    "That doesn't surprise me."

    They came to a chamber.

    "You must wait here. The mistress will be with you presently."

    Wide-necked amphorae were set about the room, a windowless cenacle, modest in size, lighted unevenly by small lamps on stone brackets. It also contained two old couches that did not exactly invite one to comfortable repose. Once Heracles was alone, he began to feel oppressed by the dark, cavelike room, the ceaseless weeping, the stale air like a sick man's breath. The entire house seemed attuned to death, as if lengthy daily funerals had always been held there. What is that smell? he wondered. A woman's weeping. The room was filled with the damp odor of mourning women.

    "Is that you, Heracles Pontor?"

    A shadow stood in the doorway to the inner chambers. The dim lamplight revealed nothing of her face save, by some strange chance, the area of her mouth. So the first part of Itys that Heracles saw was her lips. They opened for her words to issue, forming a black spindle-shaped hole, like an empty socket watching him from a distance, or the eye of a painted figure.

    "It is a long time since you have crossed the threshold of my modest home," said the mouth without waiting for a reply. "Welcome."

    "Thank you."

    "Your voice ... I remember it well. And your face. Yet it is so easy to forget, even seeing each other often."

    "But we don't meet often," said Heracles.

    "That's true. Though your house is nearby, you are a man and I am a woman. I have my position as a despoina, a husbandless mistress of a house, and you yours as a man who discusses matters in the Agora and speaks at the Assembly. I am a mere widow. You are a widower. We both do our duty as Athenians."

    The mouth closed, and the pale lips formed into a curve so fine, it was almost invisible. A smile perhaps? Heracles found it impossible to tell. Two slave women appeared behind Itys's shadow; both wept, or sobbed, or intoned a single choking note, like the wail of an oboe. I must endure her cruelty, he thought, for she has just lost her only son.

    "Please accept my condolences," he said.

    "Thank you."

    "And my help. In anything you might need."

    He knew immediately that he shouldn't have added it. He had gone beyond the limits of his visit, attempted to bridge the infinite distance, to sum up in a few words all their years of silence. The mouth opened—a small but dangerous animal suddenly sensing prey.

    "You are thus repaid for your friendship with Meragrus," she said dryly. "You need not say anything more."

    "This has nothing to do with my friendship with Meragrus.... I consider it my duty."

    "Oh, a duty." This time, the mouth formed into a faint smile. "A sacred duty, of course. You talk as you always have, Heracles Pontor!"

    She stepped forward, and the light revealed the pyramid of her nose, her cheeks—marked with recent scratches—and the black embers of her eyes. She hadn't aged as much as Heracles had expected. The hand of the artist who made her is still apparent, he thought. The colpos of her dark peplos spilled in slow waves over her breast. One hand was hidden beneath her shawl; she clutched both edges of the garment with the other, and it was in the hand that Heracles saw signs of age, as if the years had flowed down her arms, blackening the ends. There, and only there, in the enlarged knuckles and crooked fingers, Itys was old.

    "I am grateful for your sense of duty," she murmured. There was deep sincerity in her voice for the first time, and it shook him. "How did you find out so soon?"

    "There was a great commotion in the street when they brought the body. It woke the neighborhood."

    There was a scream. Then another. For a moment, absurdly, Heracles thought they came from Itys's mouth, which was shut; as if she had roared internally, and her thin body were shuddering and resonating with this sound produced in her throat.

    But then the scream, deafening, entered the room; clad in black, it pushed the slaves away, crawled from one side of the room to the other, then collapsed in a corner, writhing, as if seized by a holy madness. At last, it dissolved into an endless lamentation.

    "It's much worse for Elea," said Itys apologetically, as if to excuse her daughter's conduct. "Tramachus was more than a brother; he was her kyrios, her legal guardian, the only man Elea has ever known and loved."


Excerpted from THE ATHENIAN MURDERS by José Carlos Somoza. Copyright © 2000 by José Carlos Somoza. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Jose Carlos Somoza was born in Havana in 1959 and now lives in Madrid. A psychiatrist, he is the author of six novels. In 2000 he was shortlisted for the Nadal Prize, one of the most important literary prizes in Spain.

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The Athenian Murders 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I blew by the first few footnotes thinking I could pick them up later. When I finially read one I had to go back and start over. The 'story within a story' had me determined to finish quickly and find the 'key' myself!! Mystery readers won't be disappointed!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I never knew footnotes can be so interesting! I've never read anything like this and was only moderately interested in the first few chapters until I 'get' it, and then I couldn't put the book down! This book is starting to make rounds in my office and I can't wait for Somoza's other books to be translated. The fact that it was translated from Spanish kept me guessing far into the chapters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you're looking for a quick throwaway read, do NOT get this book. This story is a story within a story...within a story! The use of eidetic text is very unique, and the end is a complete surprise. It's for fans of Ancient Greece and devious plot twists. Don't even try to explain the plot to friends, just hand it to them!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very interesting--worth reading.