Saturday, July 18, 2015

Humor, History, and Very Very Human: DEATH EX MACHINA, Gary Corby

Sure, I was skeptical at the start -- this is the fifth Athenian mystery set by Australian Gary Corby in "Classical Athens" and it involves a group of actors, as well as the husband-and-wife investigative team of Nicolaos and Diotima. And a ghost!

But it didn't even take a chapter for Corby's breezy and quick-paced style to draw me into this 459 BC mystery. And although each chapter brings more revelations about "real life" in Athens and its surroundings, the information is deftly tucked (with smiles) into what Nico and his wife discover. There are some notes at the end of the book, and it turned out that the quirks that most raised my eyebrows came directly from Corby's research (yes, I peeked), so I relaxed and went with this very entertaining and just-complicated-enough romp through murder and mayhem.

Anyone who's heard of the way Shakespeare performers refer to Macbeth  as "the Scottish Play" already knows actors tend to be superstitious. So it's no big stretch to assume the ones in Ancient Athens would refuse to work if convinced that their performance space is haunted -- especially if accidents keep happening. When Nico and Diotima accept the task of exorcising the ghost in the city's grand theater, Nico at least is matter-of-face enough to rephrase the assignment to himself as "catch the killer," and figure out who's working to sabotage the show before the grand Dionysius festival begins.

The motives for murder turn out to hinge on employment and immigration, issues I never would have guessed were crucial in Athens "back then." As Nico and Diotima interview the newly promoted second lead actor for the show, Romanos, it's clear the actor is an eager and imperiled immigrant, and Nico assesses the situation and the actor:
I tried to estimate the age of Romanos, but it wasn't easy. He was one of those men who could be an old-looking twenty-five or a young-looking thirty-five. There were lines of experience about his eyes, but I guessed that he'd had a hard life and he could have acquired those at an early age.

Romanos looked out from our shelter, into the pouring rain.

He said, "I would like to be a citizen of Athens one day." ...

I asked, "Would it help you?"

Romanos looked surprised. "Of course it would. Citizens get all the best parts."
But what seems to be theater-motivated crime takes a new twist when Nico follows some leads into the surrounding countryside, and sniffs the trail of both beer and wine, as well as scandal.

I had a great time reading DEATH EX MACHINA and I'll be scooping up Corby's earlier work, as well. It''s a great treat for summer vacation, and reading the series will fit any time there's good reason to take a break -- for a challenge to preconceptions, a good plot, enjoyable characters, and a sense of fresh discovery. No need to read the earlier books before this one, but I'm sure I won't be the only reader who decides to invest in the whole series! From Soho Crime, and a dandy mix of caper crime fiction and amateur sleuth.

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