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.