When you stop to think about it, the notion of ‘within living memory’ is a fascinating concept. Very few of us possess the peremptory nature required to call someone a liar to their face, but the idea that something is more accurately recalled when it is within living memory is somewhat false — yes it is recalled, but the precise accuracy of any memory is subject to all sorts of caveats, not least of which are situational bias, subsequent events, personal investment, personal protection, personal interpretation, and the situation that recalled the memory in the first place. Nevertheless, as any historian will tell you, a straw poll of enough people will reproduce a fairly unbiased picture of any event within living memory, and so a range of sources often gives the clearest picture.
Moving back beyond living memory therefore raises additional considerations. Part of the controversy around the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, relies on the fact that there’s just no record of Mr. Wm. Shakespeare from when he was supposedly tearing up the English rulebook and preparing to break the hearts of a solid 68% of future students of the language he was reforming. All very suspicious, until you realise that the 16th century isn’t renowned for its culture of biography — meaning there’s very little record of anyone, so the records its possible to rely on immediately thin out to little more than official documentation, such as it is, and whatever nascent scraps of biography were cudgelled together at the time (James Shapiro’s excellent book Contested Will (2011) explores this historical mystery in a beautifully rigorous way).
Researching and writing about such periods of time, then, becomes something of a detective hunt-and-chase, regardless of genre: what can be deduced from linguistic analysis of whatever writings have been discovered needs joining to their system of gods, say, and how each successive and age has adopted and bastardised all manner of linguistics, religion, socio-political engagement, power structures, and other cultural touchstones from the people who preceded them. And then there are the physical clues uncovered in archaeological digs, which must in turn be connected to the cultural aspects where they can be detected — the presence of temples, to keep with the religious theme, or the treatment of the dead. My favourite piece of archaeological detection (and I’m probably about to be thoroughly Snopes’d by the internet here) is the deduction of what side fo the road the Romans rode their chariots on account of the ruts being deeper going into, say, their equivalent of a rubbish dump because the vehicles would be heavier going in than coming out unloaded. This was unlikely to be written down, someone had to figure it out. Frankly, I wish it had been me.
So it shouldn’t be easily dismissed just how good a job Paul Doherty has done in his impossible crime-based mystery A Murder in Thebes to make the world of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. feel so damn convincing. And I’m not just trusting Doherty because of his background in History — I’m not picky enough to research the backgrounds of my authors, I prefer it all to be on the page — and this was originally published under the name Anna Apostolou, anyway, so it seems far more likely that Doherty wasn’t intending for the reputation he deservedly enjoys to be taken as a factor in this. And, in my ignorance, it absolutely convinces me.
It certainly helps that Doherty doesn’t make Alexander some perfect, bold, flawless leader — he’s a slightly petulant, insecure, young man who is aware of the need to project a certain image, and this certainly pulls out a lot of the risk for retroactive pomposity:
Alexander pursed his lips in satisfaction. He liked such lines; his scribes and clerks were taking them down. They would be passed from mouth to mouth: dramatic words before a fateful battle.
And then the text is peppered with tiny touches which are entirely needless — and I mean this in a good way, you’ll see — but which by their presence enrich what you’re reading. The wine everyone drinks is watered down (“Some wine,” he murmured. “Three cups, two-thirds water.”) when it would make no difference at all if simply “Some wine” was ordered and wine brought over; there seems to be a huge amount of prestige attached to having oil in one’s hair — it’s even done by two characters when they’re drinking and rejoicing following some good news — and the precise significance of this is never explicitly explained, instead simply leaving it up to you to figure out; priestesses at the temple which provides backdrop to numerous key parts of the story prepare themselves not just by “dipping fingers into the stoups of holy water and sprinkling themselves” — which would again perfectly suffice for this ignoramus — but also “taking small pinches of salt, which they rubbed between their hands and around their lips”.
It is these tiny moments of enrichment that really convince. I can easily believe that other authors wouldn’t bother with them — wine would be wine, revellers would be drunk, priestesses would sprinkle holy water, and the details would stop there. But Doherty’s addition of just the tiniest extra embellishment really makes this world — which only exists in the tiny fragments the civilisation would have left behind — breathe in a way that is quite thrilling for someone like me who is somewhat underversed in true historical mysteries (and, well, every other kind of story, too). It mollifies doubts precisely because it is so off-hand where an info-dump would be far less convincing even though the author could well be argued to have done their job by getting the necessary information across.
A modern audience is shepherded through the Expected Ancient Superstitions, too, by the peremptory attitude of the novel’s investigator, Miriam Bartimaeus. Doubly an outsider in that she is a woman investigating men and an Israelite who does not share the religious convictions of the people around her, she is very much the reader’s analog without resorting to full-blown Watsoning and having every single thing explained to her — she is in this world but not of it, and so very little time is wasted trying to convince a twentieth-century audience to buy into ghostly apparitions:
“I’d like to say it’s Oedipus,” Miriam retorted. “That the old king has come back to curse the destroyers of his city. But, I don’t believe in ghosts, Simeon. It’s human trickery.”
This is a very savvy step since it doesn’t ask you, the reader, to commit too heavily to something you know isn’t true — Doherty saves that for his historical flourishes, and invites your skepticism cannily elsewhere so any doubts you’re feeling are channeled into this thread and then voiced on your behalf. That Miriam is not allowed to hold these views uncontested makes it feel like a more legitimate aspect of the plot, but I can’t deny that it helps the reading experience, too.
Not everything rings perfectly true, but the key thing here is that this is only really the case when Doherty steps outside of the explicit history. The Temple of Oedipus, with its pit of burning coals and pit of venomous snakes both guarding a mythical crown which somehow disappears, is a huge amount fun, but I don’t buy it for a second. Yet even this is used to further aspects of the plot, using this impossible setup to weaken Alexander’s victory, to spread word of his failure and the displeasure of the gods through Greece and beyond…and, again, that aspect of it I buy fully. Doherty has created a world and a situation in which the use of information as a weapon is keenly felt, and where misinformation is a keener weapon again. And for that, and everything above, I commend him and this — my sincere thanks to Puzzle Doctor for the recommendation of this, it was a very enjoyable read, and I shall return to this immersive experience again before too long.
You might be interested in my thoughts on the impossibilities herein — the first being the murder of a soldier in his locked, bolted, and guarded room that also contained a trusty vicious dog that made nary a sound while its master died, and the second being the disappearing crown as briefly outlined above. That’s not really the focus of this piece, but I will say that each solution, while technically fine, left me a little underwhelmed. The temple could’ve used a floorplan, and the clewing on the murder is dodgy at best…but there’s some subtle foreshadowing for one of them that works very well indeed. Nevertheless, this gives me an insight on how Brad probably feels when he reads Paul Halter…