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The Athenian Murders

José Carlos Somoza

The Athenian Murders

Author:José Carlos Somoza
Publisher:Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Genre:Mystery & Thriller

By Mahinder Kingra | Posted 6/19/2002

First published two years ago in Spain as The Cave of Ideas, The Athenian Murders arrives in the United States with a title that emphasizes the criminal investigation that drives the novel's plot while downplaying the philosophical investigation into the nature of fictional reality that is author José Carlos Somoza's primary concern. However, readers of conventional historical mysteries (say, Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco series) will be puzzled and ultimately frustrated by the postmodern literary trickery on display here, just as the lit-crit crowd will come away impressed by the author's cleverness but underwhelmed by the novel's underlying philosophical concepts.

Somoza intertwines two narratives in The Athenian Murders, one focusing on the efforts of an unnamed contemporary translator working on an ancient Greek text and the second on the tale related by the manuscript itself, which opens with the grisly murder of one of Plato's students. The boy's mentor, Diagoras, hires Heracles Pontor, Athens' self-styled Decipherer of Enigmas, to discover who killed his protégé and why. The mystery takes the portly detective and his client from the rarified halls of philosophy to the city's dangerous red-lantern district. As the mystery deepens, the translator, speaking through footnotes, becomes aware of a hidden meaning inserted into the novel (discernable through repeated word images), then of references to himself that grow increasingly direct.

As a postmodern novel, The Athenian Murders is in many respects beyond criticism. Somoza's characters may be unengaging ciphers, but they are meant to be so (when the novel-within-the-novel promises to describe the two central characters, for example, the translator informs us that the manuscript has become illegible at that point), as the identity of the killer is meant to be obvious. But while there are a number of pleasures to be found in both the novel and the novel within, Somoza fails to break any new ground with his metafictional devices and his thesis that all fiction is a game played by the author with the reader's complicity.

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