Sacred Games by Gary Corby
Soho Press (2013), Paperback, 350 pages
The third in a series set in early 5th century Greece dealing with the adventures of Nicolaos, a rather put-upon youth with a talent for crime-solving and an eye for attractive priestesses, who is once again called on by Athens’ supreme politician-statesman Pericles to solve a mystery that has Athens and arch-rivals Sparta on the brink of a catastrophic war. While attending the Olympics of 460 BC, Nicolaos is caught right in the middle when Sparta’s pankration (the brutal no-holds-barred boxing cum wrestling event that was the ancient world’s answer to UFC) champion is murdered and the suspect is an Athenian – and Nicolaos’ best friend to boot. Given that Nicolaos is wrestling with his own problems, namely getting bis father to agree to his wedding to the nubile priestess Diotima, he soon becomes very busy indeed. The hook of the series is that Nicolaos is the older brother of Socrates (yes, that Socrates), not yet an outstanding philosopher but a bratty kid who nevertheless is already making leaps of logic that sometimes assist Nicolaos in his crime-solving endeavours. The use of actual historical characters like this is one reason for the series’ appeal. The story is quick-moving, deftly-handled, and with a correct mixture of action, humour and pathos. It’s probably not the most oustanding mystery novel you will ever read, but it’s entertaining and worth a few hours of your time, especially if you hanker after the delights of Classical Greece at the dawn of its Golden Age.
The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, by Scott Miller
Random House (2013), Paperback, 448 pages
Ostensibly a book dealing with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, that event is almost an afterthought, occurring in the last 50 pages of the book. Prior to this were almost 400 pages dealing jointly with the United States’ fumbling efforts towards overseas empire and its troubled labour record at home in the closing years of the 19th century. There is a logic to this, as McKinley is intimately involved in the former, and his assassin, Leon Czolgosz, is a product of the radical politics inspired by the latter. It’s a sedate but absorbing trip through a very different America, confident and growing in power, but split by fractious politics at home and still possessed of an inferiority complex towards the Great Powers of the day. This is suddenly changed by an almost accidental war with Spain, precipitated by the possibly accidental destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbour. In short order, the US overruns Spanish possessions not only in Cuba but in the Philippines as well and finds itself saddled with restless native populations and ruthless American corporation greedy for colonial profits. Meanwhile, at home, the brutal tactics used by the same corporations to break strikes and destroy America’s nascent labour movement inspire the growth of radical political groups, especially the anarchists, for whom violence is an acceptable political tool. An otherwise aimless immigrant youth, Czolgosz is suddenly inspired by the most tenuous contact with the anarchist groups to commit an act for reasons he himself is barely sure of. The nation’s reaction, and Czolgosz’ tragic dawning awareness of the predicament he has placed himself in, form a dramatic, and pathetic, conclusion. An interesting and well-researched journey into a crucial turning point of American history which has been largely forgotten, this is an absorbing book well worth the committment to its funereal pace and frequent digressions.
The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson
Hodder & Stoughton (2014), Paperback, 400 pages
Not only a great murder mystery, but a wonderful insight into the terrifying world of prison life in early 18th century England. Marshalsea was the notorious prison in south London where people who were unable to pay their debts were thrown until they, or someone else, came up with the required funds. Failure to pay meant that the prisoner stayed inside until they died, which could be a very short wait indeed. The prison was divided in two sections. The Master’s Side was where those who had some means could pay for food and lodging, and if they had enough, some luxury as well, as it boasted a bar, a restaurant and a coffeehouse. Those unfortunates who had no means whatsoever were thrown onto the Common Side, to be crammed into cells with 40 or 50 others, to be fed only through charity or through gaining work as a servant on the Masters Side. Life expectancy on the Common Side was very short indeed. The story revolves around Thomas Hawkins, a ne’er-do-well who has squandered a possible comfortable lifestyle in the church for a life of gaming, whoring and other debauchery, with the inevitable result that his limited means runs out and he is thrown into the Marshalsea with a hefty debt and the knowledge that he will not get out unless he solves the murder of another prisoner. It has to be said at this point that Hawkins is a not a particularly appealing protagonist. He is whiny and ineffectual and his hand-wringing about his fate, for which he himself is largely responsible, quickly becomes tiresome. However, for reasons which largely escaped me, he has devoted friends both on the inside and outside, and it it is with the help of these that he is able to solve the mystery, not without a few twists in the tale and one really big sting at the end. Really the appeal of this book is the evocation of life in 18th century London and particularly its prisons, the feel of the book and the language and attitudes of the characters strikes the reader as very authentic. It is an interesting, sometimes spellbinding read, about a world, which thankfully for us, has long passed. Well worth a try.
Enemies at Home, by Lindsey Davies
Hodder (2014), Paperback, 400 pages
Lindsey Davies is the doyen of the enthusiastic clique of mystery and detective writers mining the Roman Empire for literary gold. She has 20 books to her credit featuring the redoubtable Marcus Didius Falco, private informer, sometime employee of the Flavian emperors and amateur poet, established a Roman underworld teeming with vice, fishy, often dangerous characters and violent crime, often reaching beyond Rome itself to the farthest reaches of Empire. Davies established her very believeable world by borrowing heavily from 20th century hard-boiled private eye fiction and film noir tropes, utilising the familiar short, punchy sentences, a cynical, streetwise protagonist and an underworld that constitutes an entire civilization in its own right, with its own laws, customs and ways of meting out justice. However, she also took care to authentically recreate, in exacting historical detail, the world of 1st century Rome and its Empire. However, after 20 titles, Davies has decided that Falco was ready for retirement, and has passed the torch to his adoptive daughter Flavia Albia. This is the second in the new series, and features Albia investigating the brutal murder of a wealthy couple, whose houseful of slaves stand to be executed for the crime, regardless of their innocence or otherwise, if the real killers are not found. I have to say that this series so far lacks the verve and punch of the Falco books. Albia is just not as interesting a protagonist as her father, seemingly unable to make as many interesting enemies as Falco was wont to do. Curiously enough, this probably reflects the real situation in ancient Rome, where women were not considered important enough to gain access to the circles of power that existed at all levels of society, and hence could never really be seen as a threat by men. Whether or not this is intentional by Davies is unclear, however, although the book is well-written and interesting, it never inspires much in the way of excitement or thrills. While I’m happy to persist with the series, it is high quality writing after all, I do find myself wishing for Falco’s return. People who have never read the series may well enjoy it, but for diehard Falco fans, it will probably be somewhat disappointing.