The Strange Case of the Unlaconic Laconians

Spartans didn't call themselves Spartans.  Their own name for their nation was Lacedaemon.  (Or Lakedaimon, spelling being variant in these matters.)  A Spartan was a Lacedaemonian.  There were also the short forms Laconia and Laconian.  That's why Spartan shields had the letter lambda (Λ) painted on them.

I prefer to write Spartan rather than Lacedaemonian in my books, and I'm pretty sure you prefer to read Spartan.  But there's an interesting consequence of them being Laconian.

The Laconians had a reputaion for being men of few words.  That's the origin of our word laconic.  When we call someone laconic today, we're saying that they're as short-spoken as a Spartan.

The most famous laconic statement of all occurred at the Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held for 3 days against an army of 100,000.  (No, I'm not exaggerating the Persian side.)  The Spartans were warned that the enemy was so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun, to which one soldier named Dienekes replied this was good, because, "Then we will fight in the shade."

A similar situation arose when Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander) sent a message to Sparta suggesting they submit to him, because, "If I win a war against you, I will enslave you all."  Sparta sent back a single word reply:  If  

Philip decided to give Sparta a miss.

The Spartan characters who appear in Sacred Games are not laconic.  There are several reasons for this, first being that a book in which half the characters speak in mono-syllables is not exactly a positive.

The second reason is that laconic Laconians must be the exception if they wanted to run any form of society, and then there's the natural variation of personality.  Not all Italians gesticulate when they speak!

Surviving examples of laconic speech aren't everyday speech; they're all pithy statements designed to hammer home a point.    And that, I suspect, is the origin of the laconic Laconian: when they wanted to make a point clearly known, it was just a cultural thing that they did it with a short, powerful statement.

I very much doubt they were as dour as the laconic reputation suggests for this reason too:  that among the Greeks they were known as "crickets" as a nickname, because the Spartans were always ready for a song and a community dance.  That doesn't say laconic to me.


Something odd happened last night.  As of a few hours ago, 350,000 different people have visited this web site.

That's 350K as measured by unique internet address.  My regular readers probably use several different addresses, but since we've crossed by a thousand or so it probably comes out in the wash.

I never guessed when I started that it would get so much attention.  I thought a few history nerds might drop in from time to time.  Who are you, and what are you doing here?  I offer these observations, based on the stats:

Not many of you comment.  Thanks so much to the lovely people who do leave a word or two.  There've been some absolutely stunning conversations that leave me amazed at your cleverness and knowledge.   In fact, when it comes to brainpower, you guys are scary.

A lot of you are doing homework.  (Hi kids!)  How do I know that?  From the search expressions that bring you here.  Speaking of which...

I am #1 on Google for the search term "ancient Greek toilet".  Says it all, really.

A surprising number of you want to know how to use autocorrect in Word.  Even more of you want to convert all your letters to uppercase.

The most popular posts overall are the ones about bizarre ways to die.  Though the people who visit those via search engines usually just read them and go.  Maybe it was something I said.

About 8,000 of you are in China, which is rather odd considering there's no Chinese edition.  Either that, or I've sold 8,000 English edition books in China that I'm not aware of.  Or maybe they have the world's largest ancient history class.  I suppose we must hope for the last.

Only a handful of you are Greek!

I'm still puzzling over why so much of the comment spam that I have to eliminate points to divorce lawyers in America.  Is there something about ancient history that causes divorce?

In Praise of Timodemus: translating classical Greek

Today is release day for Sacred Games!  Which means I will studiously avoid reading the early reviews -- for that way lies obsessive compulsive behaviour -- and instead will write about an ultra-nerdy subject related to the book.

Do you need to know classical Greek to write murder mysteries set in classical Greece?  No.  But sometimes it helps.  Sacred Games is unique in that it's the only book to date in which I've used a quote that I translated myself.

I discovered early on in the series that the translations by classics professors are so vastly better than my own slow and feeble efforts that there was no point in trying.  I was much better off reading the translations from Penguin Classics, Loeb Library, and the online Perseus Digital Library.  The Penguin versions are the most literary, Loeb the most accurate, and Perseus the most literal.

This works brilliantly, since usually I only need information.  The experts translate the history and I get on with turning it into stories.

I ran into trouble with Sacred Games because one of the main characters is a lad named Timodemus, a for-real Olympic athlete of classical Athens who as it happens had a poem written about him by the famous praise singer Pindar.  The first stanza of that poem was so directly relevant to my murder that I wanted to include it up front.

Here's the original (from the Perseus edition):


 ὅθεν περ καὶ Ὁμηρίδαι
ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων τὰ πόλλ᾽ ἀοιδοὶ
ἄρχονται, Διὸς ἐκ προοιμίου: καὶ ὅδ᾽ ἀνὴρ 
 καταβολὰν ἱερῶν ἀγώνων νικαφορίας δέδεκται πρῶτον Νεμεαίου
ἐν πολυυμνήτῳ Διὸς ἄλσει.

Don't panic.  Here is the translation from Perseus:

For Timodemus of Acharnae Pancratium

Just as the Homeridae, the singers of woven verses,
most often begin with Zeus as their prelude, 
so this man has received a first down-payment of victory in the Sacred Games
by winning in the grove of Nemean Zeus, which is celebrated in many hymns. 

Praise songs were written to be sung, but this doesn't exactly trip from the tongue.  The Loeb and Penguin versions were much better, but I felt bad about using their work.  Besides, in a moment of hubris (a fine Greek word) I decided I could do a better job.

Herewith is my own version, as it appears at the front of Sacred Games:

In Praise of Timodemus

So as the bards begin their verse
With hymns to the Olympian Zeus,
So has this hero laid the claim
To conquest in the Sacred Games.

Homeridae is classical code for someone who follows Homer (a poet).  I replaced it with bard.  Pindar never used six words where sixty-six could be squeezed in.  He wasn't paid by the word, but you'd never guess it.  I removed the "singers of woven voices" and "Nemean Zeus, celebrated in many hymns".  (In passing, Pindar's Greek reminds me a lot of the flowery English of late 1700s and early 1800s.)   The bit about "received a first down-payment" is very literal (καταβολὰν really means payment!) but lacks a certain poetry.  "Laid the claim" works a trifle better.  The literal title is "Timodemus of Acharnae, Pankratist"  but in English we'd say "In Praise of..."   My version rhymes, which as everyone knows poetry should.

So if you don't count changing almost all the words and completely altering the meter, I pretty much left it alone.  I hope Pindar's psyche will forgive me.

Erasure Poem, by Kitty

This idea is too cool.  Over at a certain sharkly agent's web site, a reader named Kitty posted in comments a poem based on The Pericles Commission.

I was astounded (and flattered).  Here, with her permission, is The Pericles Commission, the Erasure Poem version, by Kitty:

A dead man at my feet 
lay facedown in the dirt 
shot through the heart. 
The body was warm to my touch 
his wound, slippery and wet 
I heard the footsteps of someone coming 
perhaps the killer 
I stepped backward to take cover

How did she create this?  Here's the first page of The Pericles Commission, with a few erasures:

The shark that gave evidence

Back in 1935 in Sydney, Australia, a captured shark was put on display at the beach-side aquarium at a place called Coogee.  This got a lot of attention because sharks are fascinating, and this one was a tiger shark, which is dangerous, aggressive, and rarely taken alive.

People queued to see the shark, and so it was that the shark, eight days later, before a crowd of women and children, suddenly vomited up a human arm.

Needless to say this caused some excitement.

It was assumed the arm belonged to some unlucky swimmer.  Then the forensics people examined it.  They declared that the arm had unquestionably been severed by a sharp implement such as a cleaver before the shark had swallowed it.  This shark had just coughed up evidence of a murder.

Further evidence showed that the body, or at least this arm, had been eaten by a smaller shark.  The smaller shark had almost immediately been eaten by the larger shark, and the larger shark had then been taken alive by a fisherman and put in the aquarium.

You've got to feel sorry for the murderer at this point.  How unlucky can you get?  I really feel quite strongly that the killer had done everything right to hide his crime and if there was any justice in this world he'd have got away with it.

Incredibly, despite having been in the digestive juices of two sharks, the arm still showed a clear tattoo of two boxers, and police were able to get fingerprints.  (I leave to your imagination what fun it must be to collect fingerprints from an arm that's been inside two sharks.)

The arm belonged to one Jim Smith, a small-time crook who, funnily enough, hadn't been seen recently.

It turned out that Jim Smith in addition to being a crook was also a police informer, so he had no shortage of enemies.  The police followed procedure and quickly fixed on two men: a Patrick Brady, another dodgy character with whom Smith was last seen alive, and a Reginald Holmes.  Holmes owned a boat building business -- which must have been very convenient for feeding any unwanted evidence to sharks -- but moreover Holmes was strongly believed to use speedboats built by his company to smuggle drugs into the country from passing cargo ships.  The victim Smith had once worked for Holmes, probably driving those drug-laden speedboats, but the two had since become enemies due to a failed insurance scam.

Police questioned Brady and Holmes but couldn't get quite enough evidence.  Then Holmes drove one of his speedboats into the middle of Sydney Harbour, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.

Except he missed.  Holmes fell out of the boat and would have drowned if his arm (ironically) hadn't been caught up in a rope.  He climbed back on board, by which time the water police were chasing him because the pistol shot had attracted their attention.  They got him after a four hour chase.

Back on land, Holmes now agreed to testify against Brady.  Which might have gone well enough, except that on the morning of the inquest, Holmes's body was found slumped over in his car with three gunshot wounds.

Meanwhile, Brady's lawyer argued that without the body, Jim Smith might still be alive, though with an arm missing.  This gets points for imagination if nothing else.

Without sufficient evidence, and with Holmes dead, Brady went free.  If this were a novel then the detective would have formed a close emotional bond with the shark and the two of them would have solved the crime at the last moment, but sadly I must report that the murder remains technically unsolved to this day.

Gary speaks at Holroyd Library

If you happen to be in Sydney, Australia, I'll be speaking at Holroyd Library at 10.30am on Friday 7th June.

Here's the link to the event page:

If you're coming, please press the register button so they know how many to expect.  There'll be a book club there for sure, and they'd love to see you too; I promise it's one of the happiest, most welcoming libraries in the land.

Thanks very much to Librarian Extraordinaire Charina for the invite.  I spoke there last year and it was lots of fun, due almost entirely to the lively audience and their terrific comments.  So if you can make it, I'd love to see you!

Working titles

I guess this might interest a few of the writer-types among us.  When you sell a book, the title on the front of your ms isn't necessarily the title that will appear when it pops out as a real printed book.  That's why they call them working titles.

The original working title for The Pericles Commission was The Ephialtes Affair.  At the time, you see, I was thinking in terms of an Agatha Christie title scheme.  The Mysterious Affair At Styles... The Ephialtes Affair.

Then I sold the book.  Or rather, my brilliant agent sold the book.

After the editors had finished recoiling in horror, it was clear the title would have to change.  To start with, Ephialtes is an incredibly awkward name for a title.  Secondly, affair has another meaning.  Was this book about a love affair with a Greek shipping magnate?

This is the point where an author needs to be more in love with the idea of a successful book, than in love with his own words.  Luckily for me, I'm entirely devoid of sentimentality.  The only problem was to come up with a new naming scheme.

It was me who came up with The Pericles Commission, but it could have been any one of the five of us who were thinking about a new title.  Consensus came when we realized this wasn't a Christie-like series; it was more like Robert Ludlum.   So I moved from an Agatha Christie naming scheme to a Robert Ludlum naming scheme.

Having learned the lesson with book 1, you'd think I'd get the title for book 2 right, wouldn't you?  I did, sort of.  The working title was The Magnesia Sanction.

All was well until the editor pointed out that in America, the only use of the word magnesia was in milk of magnesia, which is used to treat bowel complaints.  Perhaps that was an association we would wish to avoid.  

The Magnesia Sanction became The Ionia Sanction.   The city of Magnesia was in the province of Ionia, so it was an easy fix.  If anything it sounds better.

Which brings us to Sacred Games.  It's the first time my working title has survived!

Reading Order

I had an email from a wonderful reader named Sandra, who very sensibly asked what's the right order to read the books of the series?

That was when I realized that silly Gary has never written it down, so here for the record is the book sequence:

The Pericles Commission

The Ionia Sanction

Sacred Games

The next book in line has working title The Marathon Conspiracy.  Working titles don't always stick, so stay tuned on that.

Each book is written to stand on its own, so technically it doesn't really matter in what order you pick them up.  I know for sure some readers have come to the series starting with book 2 or 3, and then gone to Pericles Commission.

Of course if a character appears in a later book, then you know they survived any earlier books!  Beyond that unavoidable information, I'm careful to omit spoilers on who did it from earlier adventures.

Sacred Games: Gary has books!

A box of these arrived the other day:

Which means we're all printed and ready to go!  Official release date is May 21.

Meanwhile, the fourth book is with my brilliant editor, and I'm 20,000 words into the fifth.