This time his boss Pericles (who always has ulterior motives) is sending Nicolaos to Egypt (where there's a very different Memphis) as an undercover spy. Of course Diotima will go along -- more to the point, so will the author-in-research-stage Herodotus, whose mission of fact-finding is the excuse for what Pericles wants accomplished. At stake is the path to the throne for the contenders grappling to rule Egypt. Is Herodotus also a spy? What other Mediterranean political forces are muddying the Nile's waters? Quick as a trireme can sail (what, you don't know about triremes? trust me, you're going to love them), Nicolaos discovers there are at least three armies and spies in play. And at least one of them is determined to make things personal and get rid of Nicolaos along the way. Good thing Diotima's got his back, even in negotiations:
Somehow Herodotus knew that Diotima and I had been to Ionia, a province of Asia Minor ... it seemed odd to me that he knew such a detail.The pen (or ink brush) may be mightier than the sword, but it's a crossbow that Nicolaos will soon fear, along with spears, crocodiles, and more. Among the forces fighting for Egypt's throne are a cabal of Public Service workers determined to protect their cushy jobs and incomes, at least two potential rulers, and the massive power of the Persians and the Spartans.
Herodotus proceeded to ask us questions about Themistocles. We were able to fend off almost every sensitive issue, since we had only met Themistocles at the end of his life.
"How did he die?" Herodotus asked. He held the brush poised over his scroll and looked up at us expectantly.
The answer to that question was a state secret. I turned to Diotima. Diotima turned to me. We had both sworn never to reveal the truth of those terrible days. ...
I said, "He died of an illness. It was natural causes."
The explanation might have held, except that at the very same instant Diotima said, "It was suicide. He drank bull's blood."
Herodotus looked from one to the other of us in surprise. "Surely it must be one or the other."
"It was both," I answered, thinking quickly. "When Themistocles learned he was dying of natural causes, he drank bull's blood to end it all."
"I see," Herodotus said doubtfully. "I didn't realize bull's blood was poisonous."
"Oh, it is," Diotima said with a straight face. "I thought everyone knew that."
"Thank you," Herodotus said. He scribbled notes.
After that we resolved to avoid Herodotus whenever he had his scroll open.
Sure, I had to have my arm twisted to start reading this series (revealed in an earlier review here), but Gary Corby's dialogue and plot twists are so entertaining that it's easy to put aside skepticism about "history this old" and relax in the grins and laughter that THE SINGER FROM MEMPHIS provides. Capers, politics, good old-fashioned murder and other crimes -- it's all here, like a happy bundle of papyrus fastened with a scarab or two.
Great summer reading, so add it to the stack! And yes, this is another winner from Soho Crime ... gotta love that press for lively international mysteries in all centuries, continents, and flavors.