Why Ancient Athens? Why 461BC? Why historical mystery at all? Ever since I studied Ancient History at school I’d been intrigued by how little was said about a guy called Ephialtes whose reforms led to the radical democracy which led to the Golden Age of Athens which our own civilisation so admires and likes to see as the root of our own values and achievements. They were more than that. His reforms took power from the aristocrats and gave it to the ‘demos’, the people, the middle and working classes and unleashed a storm of creativity. And he was promptly assassinated for it and the crime was pinned on a foreigner, probably a scapegoat. So the decision to write the novel many years later was partly a desire to investigate this for myself.
It turned out very little was known about him. But this clearly was a highly dramatic time. Something very like a revolution was going on, a successful revolution at that. The vote must have been touch and go with four thousand troops from the wealthy classes away and a vote to exile the leader of the aristocrats going through. Bags of social turmoil. A great background for a novel, with real characters to portray as well as fictional ones.
A ready-made crime but no ready-made detective, because Athens had no investigative police force. It was down to the ordinary citizen who felt wronged to pinpoint the offender and take them to court. And that included murder or suspected murder – with the religious duty of avenging the dead relation adding urgency to the hunt.
To make investigation even more difficult, Athenian society was very compartmentalised, not just between aristocrats and workers, who didn’t really mix much, but women, at least in wealthy families, were kept indoors away from non-family men. Then there were traders and farmers, foreign residents and slaves. I had to have a detective or a team that could cross these boundaries even if at risk to themselves.
So I came up with Lysanias, just 18 so just reached manhood and citizenship, brought up in a military colony abroad and called back to join his uncle’s business (I wanted an innocent new to the city to discover its ways for the reader) but finding his uncle dead in suspicious circumstances and that he is now the heir and head of an aristocratic family. Yet he has been trained as an artisan carpenter by his father, work he loves, so he has strong affinities with the craftsmen he meets. So he has access to both sides of the political divide – if he is discreet about it, though discretion is not one of Lysanias’ strong points.
I gave him an elderly slave, Sindron, to help him but one can’t make it that easy, so they don’t get on too well, providing a central relationship that can develop. Even then, they find they have to involve the uncle’s pretty teenage widow Philia (who Lysanias finds he is obliged to marry) to cover female and domestic areas they cannot reach.
The fun was not only in making life difficult for my heroes with all the pitfalls, conflicts, risks and embarrassments I could imagine (Lysanias’ impetuosity doesn’t help him) but in the challenge of recreating a society much more complex and sophisticated than we often assume. It required detection skills on my part to deduce from the fragments of information in historical accounts, documents, engravings, artworks and artefacts what may have really happened. It didn’t help that most of what we know comes from accounts written over a century later, when things had doubtless changed, created by upper class men.
I challenged myself even further by deciding to include a funeral and the feast afterwards, an assembly meeting and riot afterwards, and a gentlemen’s dining club where they play the poetry game (firing riddles in verse at one another that are supposed to be answered in verse – fortunately it didn’t have to be good verse).
Did I have any models? I enjoyed Mary Renault’s historical novels which portrayed Athens close to this time but she restricted herself mainly to characters moving in upper class circles. However, Steven Saylor had shown it could be done covering the gamut of social classes and Lindsay Davis that it didn’t have to be deadly serious. So I guess I was aiming somewhere between the two but for Athens not Rome.
I always feel that the element of historical tourism is a major attraction for the reader of historical mysteries, the feeling of actually being there, walking through those narrow streets and seeing the buildings and activity, experiencing what life was like. So I went for a fair amount of description but I tried to let the reader see it through the eyes of the main characters rather than mine and hear of background events through their enquiries. Of course, readers are also looking for interesting characters and an intriguing detective story with an unexpected conclusion. I must admit I didn’t find out myself who was the ultimate culprit till quite late and it surprised me!
While Death Comes by Amphora resolved the two murders, having seen Lysanias grow from a youthful innocent to a cynical and somewhat disillusioned young man, I wanted to know what happened to him next, so work is proceeding on the next in the series Fraud Under the Akropolis. Without giving too much away, Lysanias and Philia are now married, he is completing his military training on the border, she is frustrated with the limitations of a wealthy woman’s life, and Sindron is not enjoying the responsibility of running a household while Lysanias is away. Athens is in the throws of a construction boom – with all the opportunities for corruption that offers. The inexperienced radical democrat government faces threats at home and abroad and suspicion is rife.
Not surprisingly, our heroes jump at the request to investigate the fraud, accidents, murder (or is it sabotage?) rife on the construction sites that are transforming the city. Meanwhile the everyday life of religious festivals, war, trade, shopping, subterfuge, burglary, litigation and re-inventing the world goes on.
It’s shaping up very interestingly with some fascinating new characters real and imagined. And the challenges are still there.
Death Comes by Amphora is published by Twenty First Century Publications