A Murder in Thebes [Reading Challenge 2019]

A Murder in Thebes

by Anna Apostolou
St. Martin’s Press, 1998

[Challenge # 17: A historical of any genre. ]

I’m not a big mystery reader, but I like historicals. The two put together like this book does provided a twist on what I already enjoy and gave me a history lesson to boot, though I am well aware liberties were taken for the sake of the story.

The heroine of the book is Miriam, an assistant scribe to Alexander the Great who travels with him as part of his entourage. She is a Hebrew Jew, and this fact comes up often in her interactions with the other characters of the book and with Alexander himself. A culture clash, if you will. Miriam is, also aside from Olympias who enters later in the book, the only other independent woman in Alexander’s retinue. Her perspective is constrained, but unique. She’s not a rough and tumble urban fantasy heroine who fights with her fists. She’s a more scholarly sort, arch and detached, with a dose of good common sense. Her brother Simeon, who also serves Alexander, provides a sounding board as she puzzles out the mystery.

The story begins after Alexander lays waste to the city of Thebes. Two of the officers he left in his citadel there have been killed before his arrival, one murdered, the other staged to look like a suicide – a plunge from a tower. Alexander wants justice for the murders, but the truth is hard to find. To add to all this, the ghost of Odysseus is prowling around, riling up the populace; he’s a fictional character, but also a spiritual patron of the city. And then there’s a sacred grove with a group of priestesses who guard the Crown of Odysseus, which Alexander covets; it lies on a column across a pit of fire and a pit of deadly snakes. In the course of the story, that disappears, more murders are committed, and Miriam begins to believe someone wants to embarrass Alexander and cut his reputation to shreds. Is it the Persians? Or some other faction?

Now, I went in thinking “murder mystery” and “Alexander the Great” would not be compatible, but they were. I enjoyed the history part of it while the mystery drove the plot, an entertaining combo that would have been perfect for a beach read. I can’t rate the book more than three and half stars though, because it did succumb to the clichés of the genre. Miriam discovers the murderer (I had suspected who it was by an offhand comment Miriam makes halfway through the book, but no matter) and corners them while going on and on about her deductions, letting the murder nod and make clarifications, then grab a knife when Miriam’s speech is over. Who does that? Especially in a locked room. And another bit at the beginning about the power of magnetism comes back into the story later, which I predicted it would. Still, it didn’t much hamper my enjoyment of the book.

The author is a pseudonym for writer Paul C. Doherty who has also penned historical mystery series set in Medieval England and ancient Egypt; it was a shame this one was not continued. I enjoyed the characters, especially regal, petulant Olympias, who treats Alexander like the Mama’s boy he is, and even the many minor characters are rounded individuals and not mere not mere cogs in the machine. The story treated homosexuality and cross-dressing as matter-of-fact for the time; it was just another trait, and unsensationalized. The parts about walking through the destroyed city, breathing in the smoke, and the crowding and dust of Alexander’s camp, also leapt out at me, and again, I wished the series had gone on.

The book also emphasized for me the stylistic differences between English and American writing, in historical mysteries anyway. The English POV wavered, especially within the first fifty pages, and some of the writing was sort of childlike… naïve I would say. Happily the voice became more confidant as the book progressed.

If you’re looking for something different, I recommend this.

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