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Book Review - The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza

A mystery wrapped in an enigma

The Athenian Murders
by
Jose Carlos Somoza

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review by W. R. Greer


If you like to read mysteries, then reasoning should dictate that you would enjoy a mystery within a mystery. Reading The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza, there are many levels of mystery involved all at once. This is a clever book that never takes conceit in its own intellectual pursuits.

The book is set in ancient Athens and begins with the discovery of the body of young man who was apparently mauled to death by wolves. This is the first mystery the story sets out to solve. The detective in this case is Heracles Pontor, the Decipherer of Enigmas. Almost immediately, though, we are introduced to another important character, playing detective in his own right. Footnotes are made at the bottom of the pages by a translator, who tells us that he is translating an ancient Greek text called The Athenian Murders from the original papyrus. The translator immediately points out the literary style in The Athenian Murders of eidesis, the repetition of images to insert a message within the story.

Heracles Pontor immediately realizes that the young man's death had to be murder. He is hired by Diagoras, the dead boy's tutor at Plato's Academy who also suspects that something is out of the ordinary. Heracles is a man of reason and doesn't assume something is true until he can prove it. Diagoras is a philosopher and teacher and believes that truth, virtue, and wisdom should be the ultimate pursuits in life. These two are polar opposites, one tall and thin while the other is short and fat, one with a large round head, the other with a pointy head. As these two traipse all over ancient Greece, they argue endlessly about the the nature of reason versus truth. Diagoras even tells Heracles at one point, "Don't insult the truth with your intelligence."

At the same time, the translator searches for the eidetic images and realizes that they correspond to the Labors of Hercules. At first the eidetic images are subtly placed within the story. At times, however, these images overtake part of the story, but the characters in the story take no notice of them. Yet the translator can't understand what the key is to these images and what the underlying message might be. He goes in search of Montalo, who did the original work on the translation, but finds he too was apparently mauled to death by wolves after going mad doing the same translation.

As both mysteries deepen and unravel, both Heracles and the translator begin to doubt their conclusions and their mental states, and fear for their physical well-being. The translator finds within the story the theory of a new god, called the Translator. Trantor, Heracles world-traveling friend, explains the Translator to him. "Those who believe in Him think that our lives have an ultimate meaning, of which we ourselves are unaware, but which the Translator discovers as He reads us. Eventually, the text comes to an end and we die, knowing no more than before. But the Translator, who has read us, discovers the ultimate meaning of our existence." The translator leaving the footnotes begins to find himself within the story, but imagines he's either reading something that is not really there or that someone has modified the text to make it seem that way. He soon begins to suspect that if he doesn't find the key hidden within the eidetic images in the story, he may suffer the same fate as the young man in the story and of Montalo, the original translator.

Jose Carlos Somoza does a wonderful job weaving all of this together, keeping all the mysteries beguiling as they begin to wrap themselves around each other. The reader hopes that Heracles finds the key to his murder investigation as well as hoping the translator finds the key within the story. The philosophical arguments between Heracles and Diagoras (as well as others at Plato's Academy) become tiresome at points, yet within in them Somoza hides the key that brings everything together. The story, or stories actually, come to a surprising and satisfying conclusion, leaving no doubt as to the mastery of Somoza's storytelling. As with all good mysteries, all the pieces fall into place in hindsight once the book comes to an end. Unpredictable, intelligent, and a tour guide through ancient Greece, The Athenian Murders is different from anything else you might read, and in the end, you'll be glad it is.

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The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza
used copies of
The Athenian Murders
at amazon.com