Australian novelist Gary Corby is the author of the Athenian Mystery series, which stars, as Corby explains on his home page, “Nicolaos, his girlfriend Diotima, and his irritating twelve year old brother Socrates.” The most recent series installment, The Marathon Conspiracy, is out this coming May. Publishers Weekly has this to say about the series: “Corby displays a real gift for pacing and plotting.” Similarly, Library Journal commented: “Mix one part ancient history, one part clever and contemporary banter, and one part action, and you have a top-notch crime caper.”
Gary, it is a real pleasure to welcome you Up Over (sorry about that) to Scene of the Crime. Can we start things off with the obvious? What made you choose ancient Greece for murder mysteries?
It was an incredibly exciting time! And unique in history.
Athens went through a golden age of about 50 years, during which they invented our civilization. In that tiny place and time, they had the world’s first democracy; they began modern theater; they had trial by jury; Hippocrates invented medical science; it’s the birth of philosophy and science. To top it off, they killed each other in such interesting ways. What’s not to like if you’re an historical mystery writer?
Nicolaos begins his career in The Pericles Commission when the new democracy is only three days old. It’s a little known fact that the guy who created the world’s first democracy was assassinated about three days later. That’s the first crime Nico has to solve.
How does your protagonist interact with his surroundings?
Nicolaos is pretty much the dumbest guy in the room.
You see, Nico has an irritating little twelve year old brother named Socrates. Yes, it’s that Socrates. Nico’s girlfriend is Diotima, a for-real lady philosopher of the time who was also a genius. His boss is Pericles, one of the greatest statesmen in all of history. Surrounded by all this genius, poor Nico is the one expected to solve the puzzles. Fortunately he has a sense of humour to see him through.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I get a huge boost from the culture. The place is famous, of course. Everyone knows the Acropolis and the temples and the mythology.
Ancient Greece gets used as the background for a lot of modern epic fantasy. Think of all the recent books and movies based on Greek heroes. That makes the setting both familiar to modern readers and, at the same time, rather exotic.
To an average reader, who perhaps isn’t a history expert, but who’s interested in the period, it’s like reading a murder mystery set in a fantastic world that really happened.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
You wouldn’t believe how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent working out where everything was in ancient Athens. If you planted me in the middle of Athens in 461BC, I’m sure I could walk from, say, the Acropolis to the Academy without getting lost. Nico often mentions directions and things he sees about him, but to him of course, it’s all normal.
I make lots of use of lesser known locations as well as the major landmarks.
The Marathon Conspiracy for example is about dread secrets that have remained hidden for thirty years after the famous battle. Our heroes do visit the battleground to pick up some clues, but most of the action is set at a school for girls called the Sanctuary of Brauron.
Not many people know that Athens had the world’s first official girls’ school. It’s a known site; which means the building layout in the book is what you see when you visit the ruins.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I do get email from enthusiastic modern Greek readers. They usually ask me to include their favourite historical character in a future book. But it’s also the case that modern Greece is very different to the ancient. One classics professor who is Greek, but teaches in England, said to me that we’re all the cultural descendants of those ancient Greeks.
I’ve been fortunate that a lot of professionals like my books. My twitter following includes a fair sample of profs, which says to me that I’ve got the accuracy level about right. That isn’t necessary to tell a good detective story, but I’m also trying to give the reader a good feel for what it was like to live back then.
It’s also terrific for research. When I was writing Sacred Games, I needed to know how bright was the moonlight to see by, on the second night of the Olympic Games in 460BC. So I contacted one of my readers, who happens to be a professor of archaeo-astronomy (yes, there is such a subject). He gave me the precise phase of the moon for that night, 2,474 years ago.
This isn’t a book goof, but a real life goof…
A couple of the more ridiculous things that happen to my hero really did happen to me. At one point in The Ionia Sanction, Nico is in a tavern, where he orders what he’s assured is “a traditional local dish”, only to discover later that he is eating rat stew.
That happened to me. Only I didn’t eat a rat, when I was in a restaurant in Crete, I and several others in my party were served alley cat disguised as rabbit. The dodgy restaurant had come up with an innovative system for reducing their food costs. You can imagine how happy we were. When I wrote the book, I wanted Nico to suffer as I had.
One that isn’t a goof is that Nico from time to time mentions seeing or eating corn. That’s caused a steady stream of American readers to tell me I got it wrong. Corn is American! It could not possibly be in ancient Greece.
It’s true the sticky yellow stuff is from America, but corn is an ancient word that means any cereal grain, including wheat and barley. Weirdly, even the Bible uses the word corn to mean barley, but no one seems to spot it.
Do you have a favorite book or scene?
You can’t play favourites with your own children!
But having said that… I always have a soft spot for the most recent book, so right now The Marathon Conspiracy is the one I think of fondly.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
George MacDonald Fraser for his Flashman Papers. They are the memoirs of Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE, the greatest cad, bully and bounder ever to shirk his duty in the British Army.
Mary Renault showed the way on how it is possible to write good modern books set in ancient Greece. Her style and mine could not possibly be more different, but she wrote a series of unconnected novels each hitting some major event in the ancient world.
Last but not least, of course, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Holmes stories are considered historical now, but they weren’t when Doyle wrote them.
There are too many great choices. I’ll nominate Munich — a place I’ve always loved to visit — and Vanuatu — it’s a small island in the South Pacific — southern France or southern England.
If we could move the food of France, the beer and bonhomie of Munich, and the weather and beaches of Vanuatu to a picturesque village in England, that would be about right.
What’s next for your Nico?
Nico and Diotima will continue to bounce in and out of Athens, keeping the city safe from enemies both domestic and foreign.
Nico and Diotima’s first adventure takes place in Athens, right at the birth of democracy. Then they move to Ionia on what’s now the Turkish coast to deal with a threat to Athens. Then they go to the Olympic Games, where a terrible crime occurs.
They have this unfortunate tendency to always be where things go wrong…
The Marathon Conspiracy sees them back in Athens, where they must deal with a deep, dark, thirty-year old conspiracy.
They’ll stay there for the next book, too, which will be called Death ex Machina. It’s a pun on the theatrical term deus ex machina. As you might imagine, this will be a theatrical death. After that, the working title of the book I’m writing now is Aegyptos. There are no prizes for guessing where they’re headed.
Gary, many thanks for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
To learn more about Gary Corby and his books visit his home page.