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 GoodReads.com!

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

 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 out...no 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 stoa.org, 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.