Reviewed by Cyril Gillen
This most enjoyable and illuminating of novels combines the best of several genres. As a historical mystery, Death Comes by Amphora by Roger Hudson is both a captivating portrait of Athens in the 5th century BC and an engrossing detective story but it is also a story of revenge, a political thriller, a coming of age love story and even has elements of a family saga. The period falls into the gap between the account of the Persian Invasions by Herodotus and the Peloponnesian War described by Thucydides and, as a secondary/high school classics teacher, I feel that, for a work of fiction, it fills the gap incredibly well, testifying to the thoroughness of the research behind it.
The author makes the Athens of 461 B.C. come alive as, through the eyes of the 18-year-old Lysanias, we witness a city in the throes of political turmoil and revolution. Our young tyro has just come to Athens and suddenly finds himself driven to avenge the murder of his wealthy uncle Klereides. We explore a thriving, pulsating city – its markets, shipyards, dye works, building sites, banks and banquets. We meet its politicians, generals, bankers, merchants, artists and artisans as Lysanias and his elderly slave Sindron discover that many of them had reason for wanting his uncle out of the way. They all seem so modern woven into this rich tapestry of courage, nobility, generosity, cowardice, sensuality, venality and humanity.
The atmospheric account of the murder of Klereides that launches the novel is worthy of any bestselling crime thriller. The subsequent detective work of the ‘dynamic duo’ of master and slave, Lysanias and Sindron, is worthy of Morse and his sidekick Lewis. The cast of possible suspects would satisfy Poirot. The clinical examination of the physical evidence makes it akin to an episode of “C.S.I. Athens”. The pace and suspense established in Chapter 1 never falter and culminate in a conclusion which is as credible and unexpected as it is riveting.
It is illuminating to see that Athens at that time had what appears to be a very contemporary combination of power hungry politicians, corrupt businessmen, amoral bankers and a most fickle Assembly and populace. Politicians and generals who had best served their city were often rewarded for their troubles with exile by citizens who had a most healthy fear of hubris. In a world dominated by men, we meet an absorbing gallery of women who have found ways to empower themselves as courtesans, wives, mothers and mistresses. The beautiful Aspasia, future wife of Pericles, provides a ration of sexual interest as our young hero is initiated into much more than the customs and mores of the city.
I would recommend this novel to all classical students without hesitation as well as to crime fiction enthusiasts. Some classicists might debate one or two of the historical interpretations (no bad thing) but there is much erudition behind the entirely believable descriptions of the city, customs, businesses, politics, public and private characters. There is a vitality in the writing which engages the reader and makes learning painless – the dream of any teacher. We admire the aristocratic General Kimon and his selfless acceptance of his fate. We are surprised to find the wily Themistocles back meddling in political affairs. We lament the death of Ephialtes and look forward to the time when his apprentice Pericles will preside over a golden age in this great city. This could perhaps supply Roger Hudson with the setting for what would be a most welcome sequel.
Death Comes by Amphora is an excellent read for anyone who has an interest in the classical world, or has not – for anyone who likes a good tale well told and one which leaves us at the end just a little wiser.
Book and Reviewer Information:
Death Comes by Amphora
By Roger Hudson
Twenty First Century Publishers
Review by Cyril Gillen
St. Joseph’s School