What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mystery Monday: A Classical Whodunnit

I suspect that any novel starts with the author wondering to himself or herself, "what if..." and then simply following where his or her imagination leads. In the case of The Pericles Commission, Gary Corby started off asking himself some intriguing questions: What if Socrates had had an older brother? And what if that older brother had been asked by none other than Pericles (in the days before he became an Athenian hero in his own right) to become something that Athens had never seen before: a private detective, or inquiry agent? Those questions, coupled with Corby's excellent writing and knowledge of classical history, along with some nifty characters and plot twists, prove to be a recipe for a top-notch mystery, one that kept me awake far too late last night until I finished it and one that now has me lamenting (in the manner of mourners at an ancient Greek funeral) that I'll have to wait until November to read the next book in the series, The Ionia Sanction.

Corby's fictional hero, Nicolaos, is simply out a morning stroll when suddenly, "a dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud." Nicolaos, son of sculptor, is no fool, and quickly shows the reader that he's good strong investigative skills: "It doesn't normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from?" It turns out that he'd been shot (with an arrow, since guns wouldn't appear in Greece for a few more millennia) and had fallen, already dead, from the Areopagus, the rock on which the city's most elite statesmen gather. And the victim? Well, it turns out that he was Ephialtes, the political leader who only days earlier had taken the final steps that turned Athens into the world's first democracy. Did his death mean the end of those democratic aspirations?

Ephialtes and his murder are a matter of historical fact, and Corby has wound a compelling mystery tale around them, one in which Nicolaos finds himself investigating the dead man's tangled personal life (with the aid of the latter's illegitimate daughter, who's a priestess-in-training) as well as his political connections. Pericles quickly reveals himself to be an idol with feet of clay to Nicolaos -- whenever the latter's investigation leads him in unwanted directions (such as toward other leaders of the democrats), Pericles is angry and eager to bury unwelcome evidence. Being civic-minded is, Nicolaos slowly discovers, more honored in principle than in practice in the 5th century BCE in Athens...

I enjoyed every page of this mystery, although usually procedural mysteries (which is essentially the category to which this belongs) become tedious and predictable. But whenever the drama of Nicolaos's investigation flagged, Corby introduced some plot element or detail of life in Ancient Athens, such as how those immense marble statues were transported from one place to another, or the nature of ritual sacrifices, that I found absolutely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the points when the very young Socrates, ugly and precocious, steps in to help his big brother solve the puzzle. Sometimes, foreshadowing is clumsily handled in historical novels, but not this time; when Nicolaos heaves a sigh before telling his inquisitive younger brother, "Try not to think so much Socrates. It will only get you into trouble," all I could do was laugh out loud. Best of all, I never felt as if I needed to read a basic guide to Greek history to follow the plot -- an outline at the beginning was all I needed; Corby did an excellent job of incorporating the historical background and context into the narrative almost seamlessly, so I never once felt as if I was being lectured to by one of the characters (a big, unavoidable flaw in many historical novels.)

There have been a lot of mystery novels set in Ancient Rome to make their appearance in recent years, of which the series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso as a physician in Roman Britain is the only one to have piqued my curiosity. (I've tried the books by Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis, but haven't found them compelling enough to continue with.) Perhaps it's the fact that Corby has done such a good job blending the background with an exciting plot, or perhaps it's just that Ancient Greece is new and obviously fertile ground for mysteries, but I found this grabbed my attention far more did Caveat Emptor, the most recent Ruth Downie novel featuring Ruso that I read last month. Recommended to all mystery buffs; 4.2 stars.

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