The Marathon Conspiracy by Gary Corby

Standard

MarathonConspiracy Digital Review: 1.

The Marathon Conspiracy is the fourth out­ing for ancient Greek proto-sleuth Nicolaos, and the first since his debut to spend much time in Athens. I was inter­ested to see how this went as the first time I thought Gary Corby’s Athens wasn’t quite as grim as I’d ima­gined it.

Either I’ve lightened up, or else this time round Athens is a little more cyn­ical. Not a lot, but it feels more like a func­tion­ing city. One of the reas­ons is that the book has a bit more depth in the lives of the cit­izens, par­tic­u­larly the women. The story is that the body of Hippias, last tyr­ant of Athens is found by two girls stay­ing at the temple in Brauron, in the east of Athens’s ter­rit­ory. However it seems that a scroll found with the body has gone miss­ing and one of the girls is found murdered. Nicolaos is put on the case to find out what the truth about the body is, and if the other girl is dead or captured.

The set­ting at the sanc­tu­ary in Brauron means that the female side of Athens is an import­ant part of the story. This poses a couple of prob­lems. One is that female his­tory for the period is poor. History was writ­ten by men, for men, about men. Women don’t appear much in it. Gary Corby has done an excel­lent job nego­ti­at­ing his way round this, but he also has another big­ger problem.

Being female in ancient Greece was lousy. It was effect­ively a life­time of being treated like a child. A good woman would be indoors weav­ing. It doesn’t sit well with mod­ern sens­ib­il­it­ies. So for example Nicolaos is get­ting mar­ried in the book to long­time squeeze Diotima. They’re both roughly 20s. In real­ity a Greek man 30+ would get mar­ried to a fif­teen year-old. In the books it’s clear that Nico and Diotima’s rela­tion­ship is highly irreg­u­lar. The slightly freak­ish social pos­i­tion of Diotima means that she can take a far more act­ive role in the story than real­ist­ic­ally you’d expect. It works. However while Corby bends real­ity for his heroine, many of the other women in the story have a worse time.

The domestic start to the story made it feel a little slower than the other books for me. Also the set­ting in Athens this time round made the place feel like more famil­iar ter­rit­ory. Nico wasn’t as isol­ated as he has been in The Ionia Sanction or Sacred Games. On the other the con­tinu­ity of the place sug­gests that Nico’s actions could have long-term con­sequences for him, which might add more peril in fol­low­ing books.

The book is a grower and the con­clu­sion works well. The threads are laid out before Corby pulls them together and there’s no dra­matic volte-face so that someone isn’t found to have wildly implaus­ible secret after all. There is per­haps one rev­el­a­tion that the reader doesn’t know about, but it doesn’t affect the main mys­tery. Finishing up, I got the sense that a story with Nicolaos as a Columbo-like fig­ure har­ry­ing and cajol­ing a sus­pect would play to Corby’s strengths of intrigue, social inter­play and his­tor­ical detail.

There could have been a danger that The Marathon Conspiracy would be a retread of The Pericles Commission. It’s not and it looks like the series could build impress­ively. I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing Death Ex Machina next year.

You can read more reviews of The Marathon Conspiracy at Goodreads.