A historical murder mystery set in ancient Athens.
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Peter Alan Orchard
Athens is a city living on its nerves, a city on the verge of war with Sparta. When Diokles - merchant, family man, inquisitive, loyal and a terrible lyre player - finds his wife’s uncle Makron accused of murder, it is his duty to defend him. But this is no simple killing, and Diokles must not only smoke out the truth but risk his own life to protect his wife and children.
The sun rose bright on the day before Makron’s trial, and across the close grass, the rocks and the spring flowers, the Spartan army came raiding. With callused hands they swung heavy axes at the roots of olive-trees it would take a generation to replace. Horsemen swept through crops with blazing torches. Abandoned goats were killed and eaten, young herbs were trampled. Somewhere out in the Mesogaia, orange-tongued flames licked venomously at fine-tooled couches and tables in the rooms which had once housed Pamphilos’ Persian silver.
The light of the sun was already beating on the whitewashed walls of Artemis Street when Diokles left home for his usual visit to the Agora, but once he was there he was never seen at the bankers’ tables, at the bars or at Kleitias’ booth. He simply disappeared again back into the darkened side streets and could not be found for the rest of the day.
As evening fell, gnarled farmers watched with stone faces from the city walls as the dying purple of sunset gave way to a scarlet glow around the skyline from the west, the burning of villages from Eleusis all along the plain between Athens and Mount Parnes. Trapped in the city like caged fighting-cocks, charcoal-burners watched their home, Akharnai, rise in funereal smoke against the northern sky, wept with rage and planned unspeakable revenge.
Still no army marched out of the gate, no ships sailed from Peiraieus or Phaleron to harry the coasts of the Spartan homeland. Night began to draw an uneasy darkness over the cramped and angry city. Torches flickered in the streets, and somewhere among the thieves and ghosts in the Potters’ Quarter women began to dance on a rooftop, calling on the god Adonis with the wail of flutes and the jangle of tiny bells.
When Diokles finally returned, rousing Hylas by hammering on the street door, the night was almost sliding into the first damp grey of morning. He ignored Hylas, but as he crossed the fragrant courtyard his lips were moving, obsessively and in silence. In the women’s room he leaned over Helike, who lay on her back snoring gently like a kitten, and let her sleep on.
Tomorrow was the day of the trial. By the end of it Helike would know whether she would have an uncle, or...
Turning his back on the thought, Diokles padded to his bed and collapsed into the fitful sleep of the overtired and overwrought.
The Spartans are slowly taking over the lands of Athens and are relentlessly driving the country folk into the city, to live with friends, relatives or find their own ways to survive. The merchant Diokles returns from his latest sea voyage - trading for goods must go on for as long as possible. His wife, children and extended family depend on his wealth and connections to prosper. Unfortunately, just as he returns, his wife's uncle Makron is accused of the murder of his brother and it seems up to Diokles to prepare Makron's defence.
At the heart of the mystery seems to be the relationship between the stonemason Makron and the murdered Sosigenes, a farmer and refugee from Spartan destruction. Stabbed by a thin chisel in the middle of the day at a communal fountain, the old man would've put up no struggle. The accuser, Simon, is doing so as representative of the widow Themisto who seems driven by hate herself in the determination that Makron is the killer. But something is bothering Diokles. And when Diokles is bothered, the rest of his family knows, nothing will suffice but he questions, analyses and interferes until he's satisfied. That his enquiries lead to another death and the very real danger for his wife and children.
'Pig in The Roses' is a great debut novel of crime in Ancient Greece. The politics are explained simply enough for the novice reader to understand motives and attitudes, including the class system especially concerning "foreigners". Familial relationships are timeless and these are at the heart of the story. Diokles is an entirely believable and definitely likeable protagonist - as a trader, he's open-minded and canny and his contacts with all levels of Athenian society are priceless. Other characters, too, are written with clarity and wit - allowing us to fully understand the situations as they arise. The plot, it should go without saying, is clever and complete. This isn't a "locked room" mystery but definitely it's a whodunnit ... and one highly enjoyable.
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Peter Alan Orchard