Book Review: The Pericles Commission

I don’t remember how I first arrived at Gary Corby’s blog—it was most probably through Janet Reid’s blog or her QueryShark site—but the first post I read there examined the comparative size and battle-readiness of the modern US Navy to the Athenian navy of about 480 BC.

It was so cool. And so is Gary Corby.

See, Mr. Corby truly enjoys the Classical Period of Greece.  His enthusiasm and fascination with events big (the Persian Wars) and details small (fish sauce!) are utterly contagious.  He makes history accessible, immediate, and fun.

I had his debut mystery pre-ordered*  before I finished reading his next post.**

Nicolaos is a young Athenian man just out of his mandatory army training and looking to his future—a future made brighter by the very recent establishment of a democratic government .  All citizens are equal under this days-old system, which means Nico has the opportunity to walk his own path–until a body literally falls across it.

The murder of the great political reformist Ephialtes could stop democracy in its tracks—which may be the idea.  Nico is commissioned by charismatic politician Pericles to find the murderer before Athens is torn apart and the old, despotic regime can reestablish itself.  At stake are Nico’s hopes, Athen’s place in history, and perhaps the future of the world as we know it.  Not to mention the life and love of a certain stubborn priestess who has ideas of her own about how to catch her father’s killer.  .  .

There’s a wonderful moment—which shouldn’t be spoiler-y to anyone who’s read the flyleaf— near the beginning of this story where Nico’s pesky little brother glances at a bit of evidence and makes a relevant and logical deduction that drastically simplifies part of the investigation.  This irritates Nico no end:  “Try not to think so much, Socrates.  It will only get you into trouble.”

This book is full of such moments—far too many to share.

Like Gary Corby’s blog, The Pericles Commission explores the living history of the time period—not just tricky names and dead facts, but the details of day to day living. The characters are real, well-rounded people (especially in Euterpe’s case) who may or may not have a stake in the events that we would consider monumental.  In fact, my two favorite secondary characters*** wouldn’t give a solid gold Athenian owl for democracy—it’s pretty much New Boss, same as the Old Boss for both—but they each have a stake in the more practical aspects of the murder.

The innumerable laws and cultural rules—by turns practical, elegant, traditional, and brutal—kept me on my toes the entire way through.  It seemed like every step Nico takes evokes a law that raises the danger levels—and it just keeps on coming.    There’s no room for modern sensibilities or forensics in this book . . . but I soon stopped thinking about fingerprints and started paying closer attention to what the clues could mean to someone with completely different customs, technology, and priorities.

Not that this helped me solve the mystery —thanks to Gary Corby’s deft explanations, I wasn’t lost or confused, but by page 189, I had no idea which of the myriad suspects had done it and had no idea how or if Nico was going to unravel it in time to save the girl, the city, or his own skin.  At best, I thought he’d manage two out of three—and I already knew that democracy was one of them . . . probably.

I like that in a mystery.  I loved it in this one.

Gary Corby knows his stuff.  Read it.

*I used Amazon, which was a major mistake.  If I’d ordered it from Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, I would have received it earlier and autographed.   As it was, Amazon held to its listed released date of November 6 and I received my copy on the 15th.  Not.  Happy.

**Which explained advanced searching in Microsoft Word and has been more useful to me than I can say.  The man can’t help but be helpful.

** Pythax is the laconic and practical captain of the city guard, who (eventually) regards Nico not unlike Nico regards Socrates.   Euterpe is a high-priced courtesan and the former mistress of the murder victim—and she is absolutely, infuriatingly, stunningly marvelous.