One of the things I like about historical mysteries is the limitation of the methods: murders were always executed by strangling, stabbing, drowning or poisoning.
Detectives didn’t have much to work with especially with sparse evidence and witnesses, which gave rise to intrigue. The Athenian Murder Mysteries by Spanish writer José Carlos Somoza is a historical mystery with a difference: from the first page you’re met with footnotes written by the translator interpreting the text from Greek to English (or Spanish in the original version).
The text being translated is the book you’re reading: The Athenian Murders and so far, you don’t know who composed it. It opens with the mutilated body of an adolescent called Tramachus found, presumably attacked by wolves.
Tramachus was a student in Plato’s Academy and his tutor Diagoras hires Heracles Pontor “the decipherer” to investigate the suspicious death. During the investigation, other academy students either disappear or turn up dead, which makes Pontor deduce that these incidents were premeditated and for a reason.
While reading the murders, you’re also reading the translator’s notes that highlight different aspects of the text. The translator’s thoughts soon turn into another story where he narrates what’s happening to him at the time of the text translation. He believes that there is a hidden message within the narrative and tries to decipher it; just like Pontor who’s trying to solve the murder mystery in the original story.
The more the translator advances in the mystery the more intense his obsession becomes that at times he feels as if the author is addressing him personally.
Readers will feel intrigued wanting to know how would both plots end: the past one where the original murder mystery is occurring and the present one where current action is taking place in the translator’s life.
Every chapter is linked to Heracles’ 12 labours in a smart way using eideses: certain words embedded in the text that indicate one of the labours. Somoza’s fascination with ancient Greece is evident and contagious. He sheds light on the ancient patriarch society where women were shunned from intellectual activities like education as such pursuit was not seen fit for their feeble minds.
Instead, they were married off at a young age, expected to have a few children and to spend their time arranging dinner parties (if rich) or working hard to provide for their families (if poor).
However, women of both classes were presumed religious and had to practice by either participating in rituals or by visiting temples more often. There are not many female characters in the books and even the ones that exist have no real impact on the storyline, unlike the male characters who creates all the action that propels the narrative forward.
Perhaps it’s done on purpose to emphasise how little effect women had in ancient societies. Moreover, Plato and his Academy appear in many chapters, even his famous Theory of Forms — Ideas are real and timeless unlike the physical world — is argued within both plots.
As well as his Allegory of the Caves — the effect of education and the lack of it in our nature — is another theme that is discussed and linked cleverly to the main plot.
Overall, the book is genuine in all aspects and is a real page-turner. It’s Somoza’s first book to be translated to English in 2002 and win the Gold Dagger Awards; a British award given to best crime novel of the year. Whether you’re a fan of ancient mysteries or not, you should give this book a shot. It’s something you’ll remember reading for a long time.
The writer is a certified skills trainer and an author