It's been a while since I read Jose Carlos Somoza's The Athenian Murders, and I had forgotten what an original and clever novel it is. At first it just seems to be your standard historical detective story, with a fair few nods to Agatha Christie (the Ancient Greek "Decipherer of Enigmas" is called Heracles Pontor (note initials), who is engaged in an investigation that appears to have some links with the Labours of Hercules - both the mythological version and Christie's later interpretation).
Pontor investigates the savage death of a young man, Tramachus, who is one of the leading lights of Plato's Academy. His tutor, Diagoras, is horrified by his death and the events surrounding it. Pontor is less interested in Diagoras' own thoughts on the subject than what he has witnessed himself. There are also links to Itys, a woman who Pontor once loved. He has to follow the case through to its bitter and violent end...
If this was the sole strand to the novel, it would be a decent enough read, but allied to this is a sub-text as the "translator" works on the Ancient Greek text, and soon discovers that there are meanings within meanings in it. Soon, however, the Translator realises that all is not quite what it seems. So what exactly is going on?
Somoza plays cleverly with a reader's perception of what it is to engage with a book. Any keen reader has had that moment when the curtain between reality and the life of the book becomes blurred - my particular moment was shouting out "Noooooo!" in the middle of a packed railway carriage, when my favourite character was unexpectedly murdered in The Canticle of Leibowitz - Somoza unpacks the whole experience of reading and immersion in a book with a helping of Greek philosophy, and our own conceptions of reality. We know that Pontor doesn't exist, but does the Translator? And if they exist, when do they exist, where might they exist?
As the book speaks to the Translator, it also speaks to the reader playing havoc with our own perceptions of reality. It's very clever, and also rather unsettling. Somoza is a fascinating author, who always does the unexpected. Read The Athenian Murders, and then have a look at some of his other books.