The good, the bad, and the really good

After that post where I talked about levels of trust in histories, I've given some thought to a few modern examples that illustrate the point.  After a lot of thought, I'd like to list three modern books that are unambiguously one way or the other.

Athenian Homicide Law is a brilliant history book written only a few years ago, on how ancient Athenians managed trials for murder.  It's really well written, it quotes original sources, it states clearly not only what's known, but also what's not known, and best of all, it does not impose a single modern view on how they did things back then.   Highly recommended.

The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens, by Eva C. Keuls.  I'm afraid this goes into the bad basket.  Ms Keuls doesn't like Athenian men.  From her tone, I strongly suspect she doesn't like men of any sort, from any time, from any place, for any reason.  She clearly knows her Greek pottery, which she uses to make her point, while avoiding any evidence that might contradict her apparent position that all men are slime.  Of course, she'd probably argue that I'm only saying that because I'm a man.  Oh well.  I bought this book two years ago at the Getty Villa, so it's getting some airplay in reputable surroundings.  

Both of these are modern histories by professionals, talking about the past.  Are there any real equivalents to Herodotus and Thucydides?  Men on the ground who knew, to the best of their ability, what was going on?  In fact there are quite a few, of varying levels of self-serving motive.  The one that to me stands head and shoulders above the rest is:

The Rommel Papers, by none other than Erwin Rommel, edited by the British military strategist Liddell Hart.  Rommel, as you surely know, was forced to take poison after he was implicated in a plot against Hitler.  What is less well know is that Rommel was an established author.  After WW1, in which he served as a junior officer, he wrote a textbook on infantry tactics called Infanterie greift an (Infantry in Attack).  He planned to do a similar book after WW2, but of course didn't live to write it.  He did however keep copious notes for his book even as he fought the war, plus he wrote to his wife, virtually every day throughout, sometimes twice a day, including piles of war details that really shouldn't have got past the censor.  His family hid his notes from the Gestapo and years later they asked Hart to turn the notes into a book.  Hart did it by touching the material as little as possible, presenting letters as letters and notes as notes, so that you get a perfect feel for what was happening.  There's a mind-blowing amount of information in that book, from what German high command was thinking about strategy, down to minute details about actions and people.  It was all written by someone in an astoundingly good position to know the facts, but written with no axe to grind.  (If you don't count his utter contempt for Italian organization, the Luftwaffe, and a few of his fellow Generals.  But that's part of the fascination).   Xenophon and Rommel would have made terrific co-authors.

How much can we believe ancient history?

Actually the title should be, "How much does Gary trust the ancient histories?"  Because opinions vary quite a lot, and I can only give you my view.  This is one the questions Alun raised in his review, when he said I tended to trust the writings of ancient people.

Which in fact, I do.  At least, I trust them more than the alternatives.

The author John Maddox Roberts likes to reply with a question of his own, when he's asked about historical accuracy in his Roman mysteries.  He asks back, how much do we really know about the Kennedy assassination?  And that was a major event that happened only 50 years ago.

He's right, of course.  Pick any newsworthy event that's happened in the last three months, and I guarantee you'll find at least two, and probably four or more, strongly differing views about what really happened.

If you go to the library and check the books on ancient Greece, you'll see they fall into three simple groups:

  1. Stuff that was written at the time;
  2. Stuff that Roman period people wrote about the Greeks; and
  3. Stuff that was written in the last 100 years.
Category 1 is Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Artistotle et al.

Category 2 is Plutarch, who wrote biographies, and Pausanias, who wrote the world's first Hitchhiker's Guide to Greece.  They're both Greek, but they're writing hundreds of years after the fact.

Category 3 is piles and piles of books, some by academics, some popular.  The more popular they are, the better written, but the less accurate and comprehensive.  

My level of trust in these books is precisely the order 1,2,3.  The only thing that will modify that order is archaeological evidence and common sense. 

When you read an ancient text, you're reading one man's view, but at least it's the view of someone on the ground as it happened, or as close as we can get.  It's like reading the news these days: you read the article, and then you factor in the likely political bias of the person who's writing the news.  Though come to that, Herodotus and Thucydides strike me as noticeably more balanced and unbiased than quite a few modern historians I've come across, and certainly far more unbiased than every journalist.

The guys writing in the Roman period often worked off older books that have since been lost.  Pausanias personally visited just about everywhere he wrote of.  And described it in detail.  Unbelievably. Minute.  Detail.    This makes them, frankly, more trustworthy than most modern books.

This is going to get me into trouble with my academic friends, but I honestly believe it's true, that modern academic texts have an unfortunate tendency to be infected with left-wing ideology.  So I don't see them as any less biased than ancient texts, but biased in a different way.

It's easy to cherry-pick examples one way or the other, so let me choose one that suits me.  Believe it or not, there are ancient historians who are still fighting the Peloponnesian War.  I swear I could guess modern people's voting patterns by whether they support Sparta or Athens.  And the funny thing is, I've a feeling that 80% of the pro-Spartans are of a left wing disposition, and 80% of the pro-Athenians are right-wing.   Not that I can prove it, but it's the distinct impression I get.  Of course there are purely dispassionate modern articles, and when they are, they spend a lot of time quoting the ancient sources and doing logical analysis.  Which ultimately takes me back to the primary sources anyway.  And I must say, by far the biggest use for modern articles is pointers to ancient sources or quotes that I wasn't aware of.

If someone wrote about the Kennedy assassination, 2,500 years from now, how accurate is it likely to be?

So what it comes down to is, I trust the guys on the ground, writing within 50 years of the event, over people writing 2,500 years out.  

Two reviews from interesting sources

Two new reader reviews:

Review number 1 is for The Pericles Commission.

What makes this interesting is that it's reviewed by Alun Salt, who's a for-real archaeoastronomer, which has to be one of the cooler job titles around.  Alun helped me out with some dates for the third book, because the ancient Olympics was scheduled to run according to various phases of the moon around the summer solstice.  So he was able to give me information on how much light there would have been to see by at the time of the murder.

Alun's done some very interesting research on the placement of Greek Temples relative to the sun, which I blogged about some time ago.

So Alun looked at my first book very much from the viewpoint of someone who knows the period in minute detail as a professional.  Here's his review.

He raises quite a few points that I haven't seen elsewhere.  I won't clutter this post with detailed talk about them.  Only insane authors argue with reviews, and in any case there's nothing to argue with, but I'll definitely be back to discuss some of the things he mentions in a later post.

Review number 2 is for The Ionia Sanction.  But not the book; it's for the audio version.

Dreamscape is an audio book producer in the US.  They hired an American actor to read the book end to end.  I hope he liked it, because he had to read every word very clearly!

The audio version of The Ionia Sanction is now for sale, and thanks very much to Dreamscape for doing it.

The audio review was written by Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime, who very clearly is not American, and I was interested to see how that affected the listening.

Dead Bolt

Some time ago I wrote about finding one of the books of a US author friend in a resort town in New South Wales, in Australia.  Someone must have bought the book in the US, carried it to Oz, then left it in an obscure place, only to be found by someone who happened to know the author.  A weird coincidence.

Said author was Juliet  Blackwell, whose latest novel Dead Bolt just made #24 on the NYT bestseller list.  Dead Bolt's the second of her Haunted Home Renovation mysteries.  So if you're into paranormal home improvements, this is the book for you, and a lot of people think exactly that.

Yay for Juliet!

Colloquial ≠ Anachronistic

I've previously talked about voice in ancient mysteries, but I want to add a bit to it, because this subject comes up surprisingly often.

It's a current trend in historical fiction to write in a more colloquial voice than you would have seen in the equivalent fiction of, say, 50 years ago.  That's a trend to which I'm contributing.

Interestingly, if you go back in time 100 years or so, the colloquial trend reappears.  If you look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's excellent historical novel The White Company, which is about mediaeval knights, you'll find the characters speak in perfectly colloquial Victorian English.  (Conan Doyle wrote both mysteries and historical novels...he just didn't do them at the same time.)

But in between Conan Doyle and the modern age, virtually every good historical novel speaks like a graduate of Oxford.

That's because in the mid-20th century, virtually every good historical novel was written by a graduate of Oxford.

A classic example (classic in every sense) is Mary Renault, who wrote the best novels of ancient Greece ever.  Guess what?  She went to Oxford.

I think what happened is, the Oxford voice was so common across quality work that it became the expected standard.  Therefore, in the minds of many people, any voice that doesn't sound formal must be in some sense wrong.

Anachronism means putting something into a story that could not possibly be there, because it's a forward reference in time.  If Diotima said something clever (as per usual), and Nico replied, "Good thinking, 99."  Then you could legitimately reach for a high powered rifle and go in search of the author.

But as long as there are no forward references, then any choice of voice is anachronism-free.  Different voices will appeal to different people -- that's a pure matter of taste -- but by no means is colloquial voice anachronistic by definition.

In my case, I'm translating what my characters said in modern, everyday, colloquial Attic Greek, into what my readers understand, that being modern, everyday, colloquial English.  I'm afraid Nico didn't go to Oxford.  Nor did I, for that matter!

Which raises the other big trend that I want to point out: historical novelists are no longer classics graduates.  At least, not necessarily.  This is guaranteed to have a big effect.  If the author's any good, he or she will be solidly grounded in classics, but not coming from the same homogeneous environment means we'll increasingly read diverse views of the ancient world, that simply could not have happened 50 years ago.  The trend to colloquial voice, likewise, will make the ancient world accessible to people who otherwise would never have opened an ancient history book.  All in all, it's an opportunity for ancient-period novels to really grow.

The Page 69 Test

The third and final, but not the least, of Marshal Zeringue's book blogs.  I love the idea of this one.  Marshal asks authors to write about whatever happens on page 69 of their book, and whether it's representative of the rest of the book.

Of course, since there should be nothing in a well structured story that isn't absolutely necessary, it'd be a major problem if someone could write that a page had nothing to do with the story!   Marshal has piles and piles of book entries where authors have talked about their page 69.  They're worth a look.

A killing financial problem

Sometimes, it just sucks to be an accountant.  Back in classical Athens, there was a group of ten city officials, elected yearly, called the Hellenotamiae.  They were the official city treasurers, their job to manage the money vault buried beneath the Parthenon.  The sums they handled were vast.

The Athenians, being the untrusting souls they were, checked the accounts on a regular basis.  On one occasion, the numbers didn't add up.  The ten treasurers were instantly charged with embezzlement.

This is what happened, from a surviving court case that mentions this unfortunate incident as a precedent:
Then again, your Hellenotamiae were once accused of embezzlement... Anger swept reason aside, and they were all put to death save one. Later the true facts became known.
This one, whose name is said to have been Sosias, though under sentence of death, had not yet been executed. Meanwhile it was shown how the money had disappeared. The Athenian people rescued him from the very hands of the Eleven, while the rest had died entirely innocent.

The Eleven was the official Athenian body responsible for carry out state executions.  In other words, Sosias had been in the hands of his executioners when they retrieved him.  The implication of the "it was shown how the money had disappeared" is that it was a mistake in the books.

So the other nine treasurers died for an accounting error.

Would you buy a book from these men?

The characters in the image above (which I ripped off the store's web site) will be at Abbey's Bookshop in Sydney, 6 to 8pm on November 30th for a charity event.

From left to right:  Lenny Bartulin, John Green, Me, Nicholas Hasluck, Stuart Littlemore, Andrew Tink, Michael Wilding.

We're all mystery or thriller authors.  A surprising number are also lawyers, judges, politicians, or some combination thereof.  Why do so many thriller writers have legal training?

If you're in Sydney and want to say hi, come one over.  I'd love to meet you.

Writers Read, and Athenian Homicide Law

Writers Read is the second instalment of Marshal Zeringue's trilogy of book blogs with a theme.  The first was about books-as-movies.  This one's about what do authors read?   My answer was in this post.

I want to expand a little on the second in my list on Marshal's blog, a lovely little book called Athenian Homicide Law by Douglas M. MacDowell.

This is a brilliant book on how ancient Athenians managed trials for murder.  Probably not destined for the NY Times bestseller list, but if you're a humble (or not so humble) author of ancient Athenian murder mysteries then it's a must-read.  It's really well written, it quotes original sources, it states clearly not only what's known, but also what's not known, and best of all, it does not impose a single modern view on how they did things back then.

All too many modern historians impose their own ideological biases on ancient history (they'd deny it, but it stands out like a sore thumb), but MacDowell's done a superb job of keeping things neutral.  So, highly recommended.

I'd like to put in a huge thank you to our very own Stephanie Thornton, who spotted the book, let me know about it, bought it and posted it to me.  Thanks Stephanie!

Swapna Krishna reviews The Ionia Sanction

This just popped up, a lovely review of The Ionia Sanction from Swapna Krishna!

If you go read it, stay to check out her other reviews.  I don't know how many books Swapna's read, but it's a lot, and her review style is impressive.

An odd job for central casting

Marshal Zeringue runs three rather interesting book blogs. He kindly asked me to contribute to all three last year, and he repeated the favour this year.

Here's the first: My Book, The Movie.  The premise being, if I was to make a movie of The Ionia Sanction, how would I cast it?   I didn't nominate all the characters -- there are too many to think about! -- but I did hit a few of the majors.

Gary chats online with the Roman History Reading Group

Two days from now, as I write this, I'll be doing an online chat about The Pericles Commission with the Roman History Reading Group.  Yes, they know my books are ancient Greek, but they let me hang out with them anyway.

They meet in a Google chat room thingy, which is text only, no voice.

The chat starts at 9:30pm US EDT time, on November 16.  If I have my geography right, that's Wednesday, 9.30pm New York time.  Adjust accordingly for your part of the world.  It's actually just after lunch on Thursday Nov 17 for me, but that's because I'm ahead of my time, like most Australians.  The chat runs for an hour and a half and is likely to veer all over the place, but is nominally about my first book.

Anyone who's interested is very welcome to come chat!  If you're interested, the way to join is let the organizer Irene Hahn know, and she'll invite you into the chat room at the right time.  Irene's email address is Irene.B.Hahn AT gmail DOTTY com.  Or if you prefer, just let me know and I'll pass it on to her.

The Roman History Reading Group is a regular crew that like to talk guessed it, Roman history books, both ancient and modern, from Vergil to Vicky Alvear Shecter.

The law and and beauty in ancient Athens

Over at Criminal Element I have a guest post today.  I waffled a bit about how laws and courts worked back then, wandering from the laws of Draco (who's the guy we get the word draconian from), to the infamous incident that happened to Phryne when she was in court.

Criminal Element is a mystery fan site run by Macmillan.  If you're interested, take a look.

A change is as good as a holiday

I've given the blog its first makeover in more than a year, in honour of The Ionia Sanction releasing tomorrow.  (Tomorrow!  OMG!)

If you'd been watching, you'd have seen the background texture, colour, intensity, and brightness, and the header text and the picture of Nico and Diotima change about every 30 seconds for the last four hours as I struggled to get everything bedded in.  Sorry about that.

I think we're more or less stable now, but do please let me know if anything isn't working for you.

Next up, Ionia Sanction gets its very own page tab, and I remember when it was only a few lines of text on my PC.  How the time flies.

The mean streets of classical Athens

If you look to the blurb at the top of this web site, you'll see that Nicolaos walks the mean streets of classical Athens.  The mean streets phrase is very famous in detective fiction, but it occurs to me people might not know where it comes from.

Back in 1950, a chap by the name of Raymond Chandler wrote an essay called The Simple Art of Murder.  I'll quote the closing words:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.
He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.  He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.  He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin [tough luck for Nico on that one]; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.
He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all.  He is a common man or he could not go among common people.  He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.  He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.  He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.
He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.  The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.  He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Two more reader reviews, and an interview

Sarah W has posted a review of The Ionia Sanction on her blog, complete with footnotes.  Hop on over to Earful of Cider to see what she thinks!  Also to discuss the mysteries of ancient Greek underwear.

Meanwhile, L.T. Host has written her own review, which includes a little interview with me on the subject of my favourite deaths, and ancient versions of Halloween.

Thank you, ladies!

The Long Walls

The Long Walls were like something out of epic fantasy, with the added advantage that they were totally real.  A few small parts of them still exist.

In this map, Athens is the pink blobby bit in the top right.  Piraeus is the green blobby bit in the bottom left.  Those two lines you see connecting them are the Long Walls.  As you can see, they're long!

There was a wall built around central Athens, and Piraeus was a reinforced naval fortress.  Athens, Piraeus and the Long Walls together formed one, huge, dumb-bell shaped fortification.

Why did they do this?  Well, about two decades before my stories begin, a rather bright lad by the name of Themistocles realized that the safety of Athens required a massive fleet.  I've previously talked about how huge the Athenian fleet was.  At this time, they had about 200 triremes.  They needed somewhere to dock and maintain all those boats, so Themistocles decided to turn a teensy fishing village called Piraeus into a massively fortified naval base, and in so doing he set the future of Greece for the next 2,500 years.  To this day, Piraeus is their major port.

The only problem was the distance between Athens and Piraeus.  An invading army -- Sparta would be a likely choice -- could stand in between to cut off the Athenians from their fleet.

So Themistocles decided to build the Long Walls.  Even back then, they were sometimes called the Walls of Themistocles.

There's a paradox with the dating of these things.  The historian Thucydides states that Themistocles caused the walls to be built, and he states that they were built in 458BC.  The dating on this is technical.  A Spartan army attacked to try to prevent the walls being completed, and it's possible to show this happened in 458, or roundabouts.

But Themistocles was ostracized in 470BC, 12 years before, and then condemned for treason.  He never returned to Athens.  How could he have caused walls to be built 12 years after he was gone?  And why would the Athenians name a major defensive structure after a traitor?  On the face of it, this is impossible!

Historians almost universally go with the 458 date, and don't have a good answer for the Themistocles question.  But I wanted those walls to be there in 461BC, and besides, I think the date paradox needs to be solved.

It occurred to me that the walls might have been built twice.  It might be that, after the Persian Wars, Themistocles caused a rapidly-constructed wooden wall to be built, and that subsequently it was replaced with a more permanent solution.  Thucydides states point blank that the wall erected in 458 was of stone.    A wood-to-stone conversion makes sense, especially since, after twenty years, they'd be starting to see maintenance issues.

Also, disregarding the recorded history, purely as a piece of military thinking, it's inconceivable to me that they would wait 20 years after the Persian Wars to build something so vital to their core naval strategy.

When I checked archaeological records (always check the archaeology) I discovered a report that suggested a small part of the remaining ruined wall structure seems to have been made of wood.  That's not nearly enough to prove my theory by rigorous academic standards, but for a humble author of historical fiction, we're just fine.

Ta-da!  Life is good.

So the walls Nico sees are specifically described as wooden, not stone.

If you'd been standing in the middle of the Long Walls back in 460BC, you would have seen huge amounts of traffic up and down, from the moment dawn broke.  Fishermen landed their catch at Piraeus and carted it up to Athens, to sell in the agora.  Workmen trundled their way back and forth.  Navy men who lived in Athens walked down to their ships.  Merchants with imported goods carted them off the cargo ships and up to the big city.

These days there's a bus route that runs where the Long Walls used to be, and I think the green line of the Athens metro is more or less on the same path too, but in Nico's day the only way up or down was to walk, or take a cart.  

What's the collective noun for a group of ancient mystery authors?

Fans of ancient mystery novels might be interested in this photo:

From left to right:  Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, me, Editor Extraordinaire Keith Kahla, and John Maddox Roberts.

Yes, I really am that much taller than the others, but in every other respect I was a dwarf amongst giants.

If you went up against this bunch in an ancient history trivia quiz, you would get slaughtered.

This was taken at the Bouchercon fan conference in 2010, the camera being wielded by Magistra Lindzey.  I have a copy but I was reminded of it last night when I was trawling the net, and came across it on Steven Saylor's web site.  (The image here is a direct link of his copy.)

Despite the three of them having written ancient mysteries at the top of their field for decades, this was the first time Roberts, Davis and Saylor had all three been in the same place at the same time, so, an historic event!

Guest post at Working Stiffs

Today I was invited by Joyce Tremel to write a guest blog over at the site of a collection of crime authors, who go by the interesting name Working Stiffs.

With a blog name like that, what else could I write about, but the Working Stiffs of Classical Athens.

Joyce has a little bit of good news of her own.  Only a few days ago, she signed with the highly talented, young literary agent Mer Barnes, who used to work for Janet Reid, who in turn is my agent.  So that makes Joyce my writer-cousin.

Kirkus on The Ionia Sanction

Kirkus is a major and much respected literary review magazine.  They've just had this to say about The Ionia Sanction.  Their judgement is in the final paragraph.
An inexperienced sleuth learns that the deeper the mystery, the higher the stakes.

Pericles, the leader of Athens, calls his young protégé Nicolaos to investigate the death of Thorion, a proxenos—that is, a sort of lobbyist for a city—from Ephesus, in Ionia, across the Aegean Sea from Athens.

An apparent suicide, Thorion was found hanged, and there's a note to Pericles in which he confesses betraying his office.  It would seem to be an open-and-shut case, except that Nicolaos notices some odd details that indicate the scene was staged.

Further confirmation comes when Nicolaos is attacked and barely escapes with his life. Characteristically, Pericles ignores his injuries and asks why Nicolaos didn't catch his attacker.  And he orders him to find the killer.  Thorion's son Onteles gets the investigation rolling when he visits Nicolaos, implicating a slave named Asia, whom Nicolaos literally rescues from the auction block.  Far from being a girl of the streets, let alone the lynchpin of a murder mystery, Asia maintains that she's the daughter of Themistocles, the Satrap of Ephesus' neighboring city, Magnesia.  But is she?  Nicolaos does what any young sleuth in distress would do: He consults his parents.

A journey to Magnesia uncovers a far more pernicious plot than a single killing, with literary conundrums figuring in the solution.

Nicolaos' sophomore mystery (The Pericles Commission, 2010) is abundantly appointed with maps, historical notes, a list of characters with pronunciation assistance and bromides to open each chapter. With action scenes, a colorful setting and narrow escapes, it reads less like a whodunit than an adventure story, albeit a lively one.

Bestsellers of...1847

Here's a trick question for you.  What was probably the most read, almost certainly the top bestseller in the English language, of 1847?  To help you out, these books were published that year: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, and poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

That's right, the top bestseller of 1847 was Varney The Vampire.

The full title is Varney The Vampire, or The Feast of Blood.  It's freely downloadable from several sites if you want a look.

If I'd included non-English books, Varney would have had a close run with The Man in the Iron Mask plus two other books by Alexandre Dumas.  Dumas was not only a busy lad himself, but he kept a small factory of authors to churn out books published under his name.  Which when you look at how some thrillers are produced these days, shows that publishing really hasn't changed.

Notice that gives us paranormal, plus action/adventure/thriller.  Genre rules, and has done since time immemorial.

Varney weighs in at a mere 667,000 words.  Imagine trying to get a publisher to read that these days.  But then, Varney appeared originally as a serial, so it's probably more accurate to compare it with any modern day  series, at which point it becomes standard length.  It's shorter than the entire Harry Potter series, for example.

Varney was the first vampire story to hit the big time (Bram Stoker was born that year).  It was the first story to give vampires fangs that leave two puncture wounds.

It's also almost as badly written as Twilight.  Anyone who can read it from end to end is probably insane (I mean Varney, not Twilight), but it does have some good scenes (Varney again, not Twilight).  I particularly liked the bit where Varney challenges an adversary to a duel with scythes in a dark room.  I must work out how to steal that.

There's nothing new under the sun, nor under a dark night sky for that matter.

The not-so-secret giveaway of the Ionian Alliterati

Over at The Secret Archives of the Alliterati, my friend the very wonderful L.T. Host is giving away not only a copy of The Ionia Sanction, but also a copy of The Pericles Commission to go with it!    Plus some statuettes and some bookmarks.  Now that's what I call swag.  I had no idea she was planning such a smorgasbord.

Head on over if you'd like both books in the series.

Thanks L.T.!

Dead mice

If stoneware containers full of dead mice are your thing, head on over to Kari Dell's Montana For Real.  Kari is an agent-sister of mine and writes about life on a ranch.

I think I'll consider that a companion post to go with my previous effort on mouse cuisine.

First two chapters of Ionia Sanction at Criminal Element

Criminal Element is a fan site run by Macmillan.  The lovely Laura at Criminal Element has just posted the first two chapters of The Ionia Sanction.

They'll also be posting two articles from me in the coming weeks.  I wrote them as something like a Beginner's Guide to crime and punishment in the classical world, the audience being the 95% of Criminal Element readers who don't spend their every waking moment reading ancient history.  Regular readers of this blog will probably find them straightforward!

So anyway, if you'd like to know how the book starts, click the link and have a read!

Ionia Sanction: the Burn Notice of the ancient world?

Joanne Renaud has written a review of The Ionia Sanction, in which she likens it to Burn Notice.  Which if nothing else is an interesting juxtaposition!  (Burn Notice is a TV spy/adventure show set in Miami.)

To go along with it I've written a guest blog there which has nothing to do with spies: Romance and Love in a Classical World.

Gary almost causes a divorce

Over at chez Pacheco, they just happen to have two ARCs of The Ionia Sanction.  And they just happen to be giving both ARCs away to lucky visitors.  This almost caused a divorce.

To find out about Gary's divorce-enhancing powers, and to win a copy of The Ionia Sanction, head on over to Anthony Pacheco: Rehabilitated Hack Writer and leave a comment.  What could be simpler?

(I refuse to believe the dear lad was ever a hack writer, but still.)

When archaeology and art collide

Okay, how's this for weird...the erudite and always interesting RogueClassicist has just posted on his blog that archaeologists this month have made a new discovery at the sanctuary at Vravrona.  They've uncovered -- at an unexpected spot -- wooden votive statues, a pair of fine sandals, and other bibs and bobs.

Not such a big deal, you might think.

 But Vravrona is the modern name for ancient Brauron. And the sanctuary at Brauron is the setting for my fourth book.

These guys are digging up my murder scene.

OMG. If they find anything that destroys my plot, I'll have to insist they bury it again.

Ionia Sanction giveaway on!

St Martin's Press is running a giveaway of The Ionia Sanction on

 There are 9 copies to be won.  Hop on over to the entry page, by clicking this link, and try your luck!

Entries close October 20, so you have two days to get there, as of the time I post.

Good luck!

Quick addition: This is a US only offer, I'm afraid. The books are being supplied by my US publisher, who's interested in selling to the US. Which isn't entirely unreasonable given that it's their promotion. Penguin Australia very kindly offered books last year for an Australian giveaway, when The Pericles Commission released, and it was hugely successful. I hope to do the same again this year . So please hang in there!

School daze

School in classical Athens wasn't compulsory, but a father who didn't send his boys to school had about the same status as a leper, so effectively every boy got an education.  Girls were educated at home; which might annoy the ladies reading this, but in fact by the time I'm finished you might think the girls were the ones better off.

The first thing all kids were taught was how to read and write.  Literacy levels were high.  Very high.  And that applies to both women and men.  They might have had the highest general literacy until our modern age; and even then there are a few modern nations with literacy levels probably below that of classical Athens.  A common insult of the time was to say of someone, "He can't swim and he can't read."  Meaning, "This guy is a total idiot."    In a civilization of islands that relied on trade, swimming was a basic survival skill.  By implication, so too was reading.  

Every play, every history, every document of the time takes it for granted that the women could read as well as the men.  Also, plenty of pottery shows women playing musical instruments.  Literacy and music covers off two thirds of the male curriculum.

The boys learned these things: reading and writing, music, poetry, "wrestling" (sport), and the big one...reciting Homer.

A boy who didn't learn his Homer to a minimum standard could expect some beatings.  Homer was way too large for any normal person to remember it all, but there were core parts everyone had to know.  (Though having said that, Diotima can recite all of Homer end to end, and so too could a professional bard of the time).  If you read any dialogue from the period — the dialogues in Plato are a good example — you'll see that educated Athenians threw in quotes from Homer in their conversation in much the same way that Victorian period Englishmen threw in Latin tags.  I don't do that in my stories because it would drive you insane, though I've popped in the occasional easily recognized tag.  In The Ionia Sanction, as an experiment I put a quote from Homer at the top of every chapter.  The one at the start of chapter one is, "Evil deeds do not prosper; the slow man catches up with the swift."

With every boy going to school, there were obviously a lot of schools.  Almost certainly every deme had its own school, and the more populous demes probably had several.  (A deme was like a suburb; in fact many ancient demes are suburbs in modern Athens.)

There are numerous texts from the time extolling the virtues of a good beating to instill moral fiber in the weak.  The same didn't apply to the girls. Dr Arnold of Rugby School would probably have approved.

The Athenians had to pass a law limiting the school day to from dawn to dusk.  I'm not kidding.  No doubt when it was passed, the teachers grumbled how kids had it too soft these days, but they seem to have stuck to the letter of the law.  So an Athenian boy rose before dawn, arrived at school as the sun peeked over the horizon, and returned home when it was dark.  And let me point this weekends!  Religious festival days were the only respite for the boys.

Dedicating your toys to Artemis

I gave a talk at my daughters' school a few months ago, and much fun it was.  They were studying ancient Greece, so I was a fairly natural  addition to the curriculum.  I waffled on for an hour about things that I thought would interest the girls.  I talked about hairstyles, how children dressed (it was the previous post that reminded me of this), about schools and how kids took part in the festivals and how girls went to the sanctuary at Brauron.  Then I mentioned in passing that ancient Greek girls, before they married, were required to dedicate all their toys to the goddess Artemis.

Fifteen minutes later, I was still fielding questions as the girls desperately looked for ways around this evil rule.

They were shocked.

The dedication is obviously a coming-of-age ritual.  A maiden puts away her childish things before she becomes a wife.  Or more accurately, it worked like this:

When a girl was born she was a kore, which means maiden.  When she's betrothed she becomes a nymphe, and nymphe she remains until motherhood, when she became a gyne.

It's not quite the same as the maid, the mother, and the crone that's commonly found in neo-pagan beliefs.  But kore-nymphe-gyne was the true progression that the Greeks used, and the dividing lines are marriage and motherhood.  The dedication of the toys was part of the transformation.  The girl went to the temple, no doubt with her family, where in a ceremony she placed her toys somewhere within the temple, then she left without them; no longer a girl, but a young woman.

Based on the persistence of the girls I spoke to, I have no doubt there was more than one favourite doll that went missing at age 13, that magically reappeared at age 16.  There were probably some other brilliant schemes to save toys.  But in general the girls seem to have followed the rules.  There are a few surviving dedications which we can read today.  The clearest I know of is this one:
Timareta, the daughter of Timaretus, before her wedding, has dedicated to you, Artemis of the Lake, her tambourine and her pretty ball, and the net that kept up her hair, and her dolls too, and their dresses; a virgin's gift, as is fit, to a virgin goddess. 

Dress like a Greek

In every book I've written, I've included a few paragraphs of explanation about ancient Greek clothing. And in every book, I've taken those paragraphs out before it goes to the publisher, because explanation is exposition, and Exposition Is A Bad Thing™.

Herewith, so I can stop typing the same thing over and over, is how to Dress Like A Greek.  This should help next time you're going to a toga chiton party.

To make a basic chiton:
  1. Stand and hold your arms outstretched to the sides.
  2. Have a friend measure you from wrist to wrist, and shoulder to ankles.  
  3. Cut two sheets of linen.  Bedsheets are a traditional source.
  4. Dye the two sheets in bright colours.  You can go to town on this.  Greek clothing was as colourful as they could make it.  Typically there'd be a border and within that, some sort of symmetrical pattern.
  5. Sew the sheets together down the right hand side, leaving a space for the arms. 
  6. You're done with the manufacturing.  Wasn't that simple!
  7. Put your right arm through the gap you left in the sewn side.  Use pins — fibulae — to attach the front and back at both shoulders.  Ancient Greek fibulae were ornate, silver affairs.  Large broaches are a decent modern equivalent.
  8. Pin the left side.
  9. Tie a belt rope around the waist.  This can afford to be tight because, as you're probably noticing by now, there is a lot of extra material.
  10. The Greeks didn't have bras, I'm devastated to report.  Tie a rope beneath the relevant bits and then across the chest in a cross and over the shoulders where it can be tied at the back.  With all that extra material up top you can get a similar effect.  Greeks liked to thread colourful strands into the belt and chest ropes to make them pretty.
The woman on the right wears a chiton.
The young lady on the left wears a chitoniskos.
To finish off, get hold of a long, wide scarf made of pure wool.  Drape this over your shoulders and down an arm.  This is your himation.

The chiton was the standard dress for all women and upper class men.  The chiton + himation combo was the ancient equivalent of a suit and tie.  It was probably about as practical too.

Diotima is a lady of perfect modesty.  She always wears a chiton.  She has a collection of silver earrings, necklaces and bracelets that display her exquisite taste.   When she has to shoot her bow, she pulls the right sleeve up to her shoulder and hooks it over one of the fibulae.  Her target is unlikely to live long enough to be offended by the fashion crime.

Note that there were no hems in any clothing.  Also, Greek clothing was never cut or tailored.  Two rectangles of fabric is what you have to work with.  I've driven illustrators and book production people to drink by telling them the elegantly tailored tunics that they've put on Nico and Diotima are lovely but wrong.

I should emphasize that, as with modern clothing, there appears to have been considerable variation in the designs.  I should also emphasize that there isn't a single surviving example of a real classical Greek chiton, so everyone's staring at the same vase pictures to guess how they were made.

A chitoniskos is a little chiton.  Boys often wore daddy's old, cast-off chiton, cut down to size.  Take the chiton you've just made, cut it so it ends above the knees. and cut the sides until it's slightly too large for the target child (these kids tend to grow).  Socrates wears a chitoniskos, whenever he can be forced to wear anything at all.

Artisans and middle class workers didn't wear chitons.  There's no way you could do practical labour wearing that thing.  Instead, they wore an exomis.  Chitons are unisex, but the exomis is men-only.  Here's how to make an exomis:
  1. Do the stand-and-measure thing as before.  But stop at the elbows, or even less, according to taste.
  2. Sew down the right, as before.
  3. Now, when you put it on from the right, forget about pins.  Just tie the top left corners over the left shoulder.
  4. You're done!

Everything reverses for left handed men.  Sew the left side rather than the right, and tie over the right shoulder.  You can actually tell if someone is left or right handed by which side they wear their exomis knot.

The exomis is obviously very loose, and anyone looking from the left side is going to get an eyeful, but the Greeks weren't exactly bashful and even walking around naked was perfectly acceptable.

Nico almost always wears an exomis.  That's partly because he comes from an artisan family where the exomis is standard daily work wear for his dad, but it's mostly because it's so much easier to battle bad guys with less material to deal with.  The one time he tried to knife fight in a chiton, he tripped over.

Adverbs considered harmful

There was a minor local news item recently which quoted a complaint made to the Australian advertisement review board.  The actual complaint was very silly, but the language used bears a look:
"This advertisement is categorically incontrovertibly irrefutably unambiguously unequivocally indisputably indubitably undeniably unassailably and impregnably in breach. of 2(a) and (c) of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) code."
This sentence scores points for vocabulary — perhaps I should say it certainly scores points — but I can't help feeling it tells us more about the person doing the whining than anything about the complaint.  Which is the problem with adverbs.  Though having said that I'm probably at the high end of adverb rates among published authors.

I'm still scratching my head about the impregnably.  Does this mean the rules breach can't be taken?  Or can't be made pregnant?

Horos stones

Ancient Greeks were not particularly good at public records.  In fact, to tell the truth, they sucked at it.

This wasn't as big a problem as you might think; it's only recently that modern people have taken the view that life is impossible unless every little detail gets written down.

There was one point, however, where the Greeks needed to do better, and that was recording who owned what land.  Believe it or not, there was no registry of land ownership.  This made for an interesting problem.

They solved the problem by putting boundary stones around everyone's property.  Horos means limit, or boundary.  A horos stone is a boundary marker with a legal enforceable meaning.  The stones were normally quite large, I suspect they were typically painted white to make them easy to see.  Most, but not all, had something written on them: a standard formula declaring the stone to be a legal boundary.

All land, to be legally owned, had to be enclosed by horos stones placed at regular intervals.  I think the usual interval was probably a stade, that being the length of the Olympic competition field, and the origin of our word stadium.

Here, from the excellent, is one of the surviving horos stones for the agora in Athens.  There's an inscription on it that reads, "I am the boundary of the agora."  (Horos stones always spoke in first person.)

Needless to say, there were countless court cases where one farmer claimed his neighbour had moved the boundary stones.  In those cases it all hung on witnesses.  Since the stones were embedded in the ground, moving them would leave fairly obvious holes, even if the culprit filled them with fresh dirt.  Also everyone in the area would know everyone else's business and if the boundary shifted locals would probably spot it.  

If you wanted to sell land, then the law varied wildly from city to city.  In Athens — I'm on shaky ground here, but I think I have it right — both parties had to post the sale with one of the city magistrates for 60 days, after which it was a done deal as long as no one objected.  This rule was presumably to ensure no scammer sold someone else's property.   There was actually no other defense.  I can only assume a few con artists got away with it.  

A new member of the team: say hi to Hannah

The lovely smiling face in this photo is Hannah the Editorial Assistant.  She's a new recruit to Team Keith at St Martin's Press, which is probably why she's smiling. 

Hannah's holding the very first jacket to come from the printer for my next book.  This is the first time I've seen the entire jacket too.

I have a feeling this is Hannah's first foray into the wild and wacky world of publishing.  I wish her many long years of success, and hope she manages to keep her sanity more or less intact.  Welcome Hannah!

Come say hi at Abbey's Bookshop

If you're in Sydney on November 30, I would love to see you here, so I can get to meet some of the lovely people who read this blog.  Also, it's in a good cause; all funds will go to the Sydney chapter of Zonta International, whose purpose is to raise the status of women around the world. 

Abbey's is one the largest, oldest and most successful indie bookstores in Australia.  They opened their doors for business when I was 5 years old, and they're still going strong.  They're right opposite the Queen Victoria Building, very easy to get to.  


 Abbey’s Bookshop and the Zonta Club of Sydney
present the Twenty-Eighth Annual

Meet the Authors Evening

on Wednesday 30th November 2011 (6pm to 8pm)
at Abbey’s Bookshop
131 York Street, Sydney (opposite the Queen Victoria Building).

Funds raised from door sales, plus 10% of sales on the evening,
will be donated to the Zonta Service Project 2011.

Refreshments will be served and authors are happy to chat and sign copies of their books.

Authors attending:

LENNY BARTULIN                      author of the Jack Susko mysteries A Deadly Business, The Black Russian and De Luxe

JOHN M GREEN                            author of the thrillers Nowhere Man and Born to Run

GARY CORBY                               author of the historical crime novel The Pericles Commission

NICHOLAS HASLUCK                author of the political thriller Dismissal

STUART LITTLEMORE              author of Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice

ANDREW TINK                             author of Lord Sydney: His Life and Times and William Charles Wentworth: Australia’s Greatest Native Son

MICHAEL WILDING                   author of Wild and Woolley: A Publishing Memoir, Superfluous Men and The Prisoner of Mount Warning

Take this opportunity to choose some great Christmas presents
and know you are also donating 10% to the Zonta Service Project.

Cost is $5 per person - you may pay at the door.

Abbey’s Bookshop   131 York St, Sydney NSW 2000
Ph 9264 3111   Fx 9264 8993

Publishing: the brutal reality

This morning I woke to find that the following conversation had taken place while I slept.  I'm passing this on (with permission) to show you the tense dynamics of the publishing world.  What you're about to read is a for real, blow-by-blow dialogue between one of the greatest and most successful editors in publishing, and one the most renowned literary agents.  I have not changed a word.  

Keith the Editor:
Hi Gary:

     So production has released the original copy-edited ms. of The Pericles Commission back to us.  Traditionally, original manuscripts were returned to the author – for reasons both long and no longer nearly as germane in this digital world – but nowadays most authors prefer that we simply recycle them at our end.  However, if you want this back for posterity – or some authors include the ms. in the papers that they donate to an archive somewhere – just let Hannah know and she’ll send it on to you via slow boat to Australia winged steed.  Or something like it.

Janet the Shark:
Or you could send it by smelly donkey over to FPLM.  I have several you can borrow if you don't keep a stable anymore.
Keith the Editor:
Okey dokey.  Over to you.  As soon as we can find a spare llama to port it over to you on.  Or the postal service, for as long as it lasts.
Hannah the Editorial Assistant:
I've located a menagerie of animals to escort the MS back to you-- it will be on its way soon! 
So that's how publishing works!  Seriously, these guys are the ones who should be writing the funny books.

The Ionia Sanction gets a starred review from Publishers Weekly

You can tell release day is fast approaching, because the reviews are coming in. This is a period in an author's life pretty much guaranteed to reduce even the most stable human beings to nervous wrecks, but so far I've lucked out. The shiny red star next to the review is the publishing world's equivalent of a cherry on top.

 The Ionia Sanction

In Corby’s excellent second mystery set in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece (after 2010’s The Pericles Commission), professional investigator Nicolaos, a protégé of Athens’ leading citizen, Pericles, looks into the death of Thorion, the “proxenos” or consular representative for the city of Ephesus in Athens. Thorion was found hanging in his private office after Pericles received a note in which the dead man confessed to betraying his position and his city.
 Nicolaos soon finds sufficient evidence of homicide to persuade his boss that further inquiry is warranted. Pericles’ certainty that a scroll stolen from Thorion is crucial to the safety of Athens sets in motion a complex series of events that sends Nicolaos to Ephesus.

  Despite the high stakes involved, Corby is able to integrate humor appropriately into the action. His lead, like Steven Saylor’s Roman sleuth, Gordianus, manages to retain his integrity, despite being buffeted by powerful forces and morally challenging situations.

The Ionia Sanction: the Oz cover

Hot off the virtual presses, thanks to Belinda the Publisher.  You'll notice a similarity to the Oz cover of Pericles Commission.  Consistent look and feel helps people recognize books in a series.  I don't know where the coin comes from on this one, and I wasn't brave enough to ask after the trouble I caused over the coin on the Pericles Commission cover.  This cover will be appearing, complete with printed pages behind it, on Australian bookstore shelves in January 2012.

The US cover is the orange one to the right.  The US edition's out in November 2011; just 2 months to go.

It feels weird having multiple books with my name on them!

In charge of a restive horse

Since time immemorial, the internet has been a source of urban legend.  A certain proportion of these myths refer to ancient road rules involving horses, laws that are still in force a century after their use-by date.  They almost inevitably prove to have been repealed decades ago, much to everyone's disappointment.

It is with great pleasure therefore that I give you section 303A of the current road use regulations of the state of Queensland, of the nation known as Australia:


303A Giving way to restive horses(1) This section applies if a person in charge of a restive horse gives a signal, by raising a hand and pointing to the horse, to the driver of a motor vehicle on a road.
(2) The driver must--
(a) drive the vehicle as near as practicable to the far left side of the road; and
(b) stop the vehicle's engine; and
(c) not move the vehicle until there is no reasonable likelihood that the noise of the motor, or the movement of the vehicle, will aggravate the restiveness of the horse.
Maximum penalty--20 penalty units.
(3) In this section--
in charge of includes leading, driving or riding.
This is exactly my 400th post, by the way.  How the time flies.

You too can be a porn site!

The people who control the internet have decided, in their near-infinite wisdom, to create a new domain type.  This one is .XXX, and there's no prize for guessing what that refers to.

As we all know, porn sites like to hijack well known names.  I'll never forget the day that I decided, while doing a technology demonstration in front of hundreds of people, to use the Office of the US President for my example.  I typed by reflex, instead of the somewhat more correct  It turned out that was a porn site, as I and the hundreds of men and women watching soon discovered.  I apologize (again) to everyone who was there.

So, name hijacking on the new .XXX domains is an obvious problem.  To counter this, the Gnomes of the Net have declared a sunrise period of 52 days, which began yesterday, September 7, during which people can block use of their brand names.

And there's the rub.  They're only allowing you to block use of your name if it's a registered trademark.  If you're Microsoft, you can prevent a porn site using  Although that would be ironic since micro and soft probably aren't at the forefront of desirable concepts when you're looking for porn.  But if, however, you want to block, just to pick a random example, then you can't do it.

I'm fairly sure the Gnomes haven't thought this through.  Maybe Hollywood celebrities trademark their names, but the vast majority of people who might get googled from time to time don't.    A porn site could register hundreds of mid-grade names and point them to the same salacious location.

So I'm stuck.  And so are you, if you want to block your name.

Svante Paabo: DNA clues to our inner neanderthal

Svante Pääbo is the Einstein of human genetic origins.  He and his team have pulled ancient DNA from some unbelievably old human fossils, and used it to determine relationships that otherwise could be nothing but speculation.  Here he is in a fascinating talk where he describes, very simply, what they're up to.

A top-notch crime caper!

There's a certain degree of fatalism required for any author waiting on first reviews of a book, so it is with great pleasure and some small relief that I tell you the first review has appeared for The Ionia Sanction.

 This from the latest issue of the Library Journal:
Corby, Gary. The Ionia Sanction. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Nov. 2011. c.304p. maps. ISBN 9780312599010. $24.99. Mix one part ancient history, one part clever and contemporary banter, and one part action, and you have a top-notch crime caper. Corby brings back his dynamic crime-­detecting couple, Nicolaos and Diotima, for their second outing (after The Pericles Commission). Pericles dispatches Nicolaos abroad to Ephesus to return a slave girl who’s really a government official’s daughter and to retrieve a stolen document that should explain why an Athenian diplomat was hanged. The arrogance of Athenian native Nicolaos is quickly dashed when he’s confronted with new customs in this region controlled by Persia. Luckily, the charming Diotima paves the way. Layers of intrigue pile up, and our duo can see that time may run out before they can smuggle critical information—and get themselves—back to Athens.VERDICT The mix of real history with a crime romp makes Corby’s sequel go down easily. The author deftly concocts a Mel Brooks type of history. Highly recommended for those looking for humor with their crime detecting.
If you're wondering how reviews can be done for books that haven't released yet (Ionia Sanction is out in November), it's because the publisher prints advance reader copies, known in publishing lingo as ARCs.  The ARCs are printed as a small job lot before final corrections.

Here's the link to all the reviews and the official page.  I notice my friend and fellow author Joelle Charbonneau is in there too for her second book, Skating Over The Line.  Joelle and I seem to be in lock-step with our writing.


From the Encyclopedia of ancient Greece by Nigel Wilson:
Cotton, hemp, and silk appeared by the 5th century BC, attesting to the extensive trade networks developed by the Greeks.  Cotton originated on the Indian subcontinent, hemp in northern Europe, and silk in China.  Several purple and white textiles found in a late 5th century BC tomb in Athens raise questions about when silk arrived in Greece.
Hemp is straightforward.  Herodotus talks of the Scythians to the north using hemp seeds in their baths.

Alexander the Great hit India a hundred years later, at the end of the 4th century, and clearly by then India was well known to the Persians.  Cotton appearing in Greece in the 5th century via trade routes is very reasonable.  Though there probably wasn't much of it.  Most clothing was made of wool.

It's very unlikely--I'd go as far to say impossible to believe--that the silk road was open in the 5th century BC, but it's apparent that China was trading with Persia, Persia with Greece (when they weren't slaughtering each other), and therefore credible that some silk managed to make it to Greece.