Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Monday, January 31, 2011

Ode on a Grecian Murder Mystery

The Pericles Commission
by Gary Corby

I've never fallen asleep during a movie, nor whilst reading fiction. But for four years, high school history textbooks were my kryptonite.1 The writing was dry and tedious, and although I'd previously enjoyed the subject, I soon began to equate history with boredom. If only those texts had read more like Gary Corby's excellent debut, The Pericles Commission, I might not have vilified it in my graduation speech.

I studied ancient Greece in high school, but as you might expect, I retained none of that knowledge once the test was behind me. Yet, by weaving those same details into the context of his historical mystery, Corby has now ensured I remember many aspects of Athenian culture, from banking to slavery to politics.

The Pericles Commission begins with the murder of Ephialtes, days after he has helped bring the world's first democracy to Athens. He falls at the feet of Nicolaos, an enterprising young man whom Pericles soon commissions to find the murderer because, unlike everyone else involved, he has no political agenda.

Apart from Nicolaos, nearly every major character is pulled straight from the history books, but unlike the writers I was subjected to in my teen years, Corby breathes life into every one, imbuing each with unique motivations and reactions. And though some aspects of Greek culture are revealed through exposition, most are divulged as Nicolaos discovers them himself, for he starts off the book unfamiliar with much of higher society.

The history is great, but the story is where Corby really shines. Writers are often told to torture our protagonists, and he does that with aplomb. Nicolaos initially stumbles as an inexperienced sleuth, then slowly gains confidence and supporters. Yet, when his ultimate goal seems just within reach—BAM! The carpet is pulled out from under him.2 He regroups, and just as he attains his new goal—BAM! The tables are turned once again.3

The Pericles Commission is a thoroughly entertaining read, and I highly recommend it. All history should be taught this way.

(You should also check out Gary Corby's blog.)


1 Small amounts of exposure would leave me pained and weak; larger doses drained me of my energy completely. Also, no one recognized me when I took off my glasses.
2 It's not a literal carpet.
3 The tables aren't literal, either. Also, I apologize for channeling Emeril Lagasse for a moment there.


  1. Does Pericles rhyme with Hercules?

  2. even though this sounds awesome, i'll have to pass. I'm no good with books where i can't tell where the fiction ends and the fact begins. Drives me CRAZY!

  3. Sounds like a wonderful read. I wish I could get my hands on it.


  4. JB: Why yes, it does! At least, the last syllable. That's about all they have in common.

    Falen: Oh, that's easy. Fact: The characters (in that they actually existed), the culture/daily life, the setup, and the end results. Fiction: Everything in between.

    Misha: Alas, you already missed Gary's contest, which did get one copy into South Africa. Why don't you try stalking the guy who won it? Or, you know, attempt to procure it in a more law-abiding fashion. (Note: The latter's not quite as fun.)

  5. I used to feel like you did about history and now it's one of my favorite genres. Maybe it's because now I'm old enough to feel like much of my life is now history or something like that.
    Good review of Gary's book.

    Tossing It Out and the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge 2011

  6. Thanks, Lee. Nah, it's not the age thing; it's just that anything can become boring if you only know it through textbooks and rote memorization. Luckily, people like Gary are making it fun again.