Source: Review copy
Publication: 7th March 2019 from Orion
443 BC, and, after decades of war with Persia, peace has finally come to Athens. The city is being rebuilt, and commerce and culture are flourishing.
Aspiring playwright Philocles has come home to find a man with his throat cut slumped against his front gate. Is it just a robbery gone wrong? But, if so, why didn’t the thieves take the dead man’s valuables? With the play that could make his name just days away, he must find out who this man is, why he has been murdered – and why the corpse was left in his doorway.
But Philocles soon realises he has been caught up in something far bigger, and there are those who don’t want him looking any further . . .
I’m a fan of Lindsay Davies’ Falco novels set in Rome and in Philocles, J.M.Alvey has created a character who is just as engaging and equally as intrepid. Shadows of Athens is set in 443 B.C. After years of gruelling war with Persia, peace is flourishing and Athens is girding its loins to become the centre of glorious temples and cultural wonders it will be known for.
Athenians are preparing for the Festival of Dionysia; not least of them is Philocles, a writer and humourist who is penning a play for his patron, Aristarchos which will compete for the festival’s comedy prize. Frequent sacrifices are made to the Gods to ask for victory in the competition and Philocles is on hand at every rehearsal to school the actors and ensure his script is adhered to.
All is chaos, but no more so than usual when, on returning home from a rehearsal, Philocles finds a dead man lying outside the gates of his home. The man is unknown to Philocles, but has had his throat cut and it’s pretty clear from what was left on his body that this was no robbery gone wrong.
Philocles learns that the man was part of the influx of tourists from the Hellenic States who flock to the festival of Dionysus to enjoy the culture. But this man and his compatriots had another reason for coming to Athens. Someone is stirring up discontent amongst the dependent states and rumours of dissent are growing.
The Greek city-states had made peace with the Persian Empire and Athens now effectively controls all the Greek city states in Ionia. A great building plan has begun to re-fortify Athens main port and its long walls extending to Athens main city but also including the massive rebuilding program of Athenian temples. Dependent states and cities pay large contributions to Athens to keep them safe but, to all intents and purposes, it is easy for it to look as if all this money is being turned into marble temples, whilst the residents of the outlying states have given up all they have for their safety.
Philocles, finding the dead man at his home, has no option but to turn detective, assisted by the backing of his patron.
I really enjoyed this innovative approach to historical detective fiction. Alvey creates a fantastic picture of Athens and its people, the gossip, political intrigue and customs of the times.
In Philocles, too, we have a well-rounded protagonist. Learned but needing to work and thus reliant on patrons, he lives with his partner, Zosime, herself an artist. Zosime is not an Athenian and so they are not married, but Philocles loves her and is very protective of her. This is also the case for his brother in arms, Kadous,who lives as his slave in accordance with Athenian custom, but who is in reality much more his friend and sometimes bodyguard.
Thus Philocles is established as both an Athenian, able to visit the Agora with all his rights and privileges as an Athenian, but also something of an outsider with an unconventional household which lends him the right credentials to look into those whose outward appearance may be as good Athenians, but whose morals and motives may be more suspect.
Philocles has brothers involved in the tannery trade and a sub-plot running through the book deals with problems relating to supply, but is also a means of introducing us to Philocles wider family for future books, I imagine.
As our intrepid protagonist roams the festive streets of Athens looking for clues, he comes up against some pretty loathsome characters. Hired killers and aristocratic youth with more money than sense are entwined in a political play that combines intrigue, deception and murder but which, if successful, will net the instigators huge rewards.
As he investigates, Philocles comes up against some serious violence more than once and is lucky to come out alive.
I very much enjoyed this novel and hope it is the start of a series. Alvey has gifted us a new and exciting world of Grecian intrigue and in Philocles, a protagonist of wit and intelligence.
Verdict: An enjoyable and immersive journey into Athens’ past written with style and wit.
J.M. Alvey studied Classics at Oxford in the 1980s. As an undergraduate, notable achievements in startling tutors included citing the comedic principles of Benny Hill in a paper on Aristophanes, and using military war-gaming rules to analyse and explain apparent contradictions in historic accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Crime fiction has always been relaxation reading and that love of mysteries and thrillers continued through a subsequent, varied career, alongside an abiding fascination with history and the ancient world