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David Wishart

Lydian Baker, The
Hodder Stoughton, 1998
Barnes & Noble


Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, patrician bon viveur and crime solver extraordinaire, is back for another self-imposed exile in Athens. Four months after his run-in with Sejanus, a letter from Marcus's antiquarian stepfather Priscus sounds like a simple job of authenticating an antique statue and arranging for its sale and shipment. But Priscus hasn't included the important bits. The statue is The Lydian Baker made in the sixth century BC for Croesus: four and a half feet of solid gold with a fearsome legend that all who touch it will die a horrible death. To Priscus it is worth a villa and a yacht but to others it is worth still more. Marcus and Perilla find themselves embroiled yet again in a case where the murders come thick and fast and Marcus needs all his doubtful wits to say ahead of the villains. This is the fourth Corvinus novel (Sejanus is also reviewed here) and a departure from the usual format. Unlike other sleuths, he is not usually solving contemporary crimes but digging into old political scandals for the Empress Livia. Here he is in the world of dodgy goods, ancient curses and family secrets. Corvinus is on his usual chirpy form and the pages are as replete with modernisms as those of other creators of Roman whodunnits, Lindsey Davis and Marilyn Todd. The ancient world appears both like and unlike our own. On the one hand are the bustling markets, fast food takeaways, apartment blocks and political intrigue we see around us today. On the other, we hear of mad emperors, casual executions for flimsy reasons and slaves being tortured when their masters are killed so that their evidence will be permissible in court. Wishart is adept at delineating a world we can recognize but which at the same time is alien and exotic. Wisely, he does not make it appear too modern and the action keeps the pages turning. -Rachel A Hyde From The Historical Novel Review (December 1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Rachel A Hyde, 12/19/2005

While exiled to Athens, Marcus Corvinus, investigates how a valuable Greek artifact has suddenly come on the open market and who purchased it, which lead to the dangerous world of organized crime. Fourth in the series. Copyright (C) 1994-1999 by Richard M. Heli

- Richard M. Heli , 12/19/2005

Place: Athens Date t/o Tiberius, after fall of Sejanus (between 31 & 37 AD) Detective-Narrator: Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus This fifth in the Roman mysteries featuring Corvinus is informative and entertaining, though I have a few reservations about Corvinus in general and the plot development in this installment. Following the fall of Sejanus, Corvinus has moved in disgust to Athens, with his wife Perilla and the household staff from previous series entries. One carryover from the previous novel which is mentioned a few times but never explained is the adoption of the young Marilla. It is, of course, unusual for a Roman to adopt a female, but the circumstances here are unusual (involving the Tarpeian rock) and we learn more about Marilla in the subsequent novel, Old Bones. A new character, who will undoubtedly reappear if and when Corvinus returns to Athens (since he is in Italy in Old Bones), is the commander of the Athenian Watch, Callippus, in the role of the friendly if long-suffering police captain of modern detective fiction (and the counterpart of Corvinus’ friend in Rome, Lipillus, a regional Watch commander). Marcus still drinks a lot and is flippant in his speech, especially when he banters with his wife and his butler, and this may prove objectionable to some readers. When Corvinus comments about Perilla that “hanging around wine stores and shooting the breeze wasn’t the lady’s bag”, some readers will appreciate the modern idiom. Others will regret that loss of ancientness that they expect in a Roman’s speech. One could argue that a real Corvinus might have indulged in a Roman equivalent of modern slang; surely, it is not necessary for a character in a Roman mystery novel to speak in “thee”s and “thou”s as some characters of religious novels set in the period do. Equally, a Roman should not refer to television, use the internet or allude to works not yet written or concepts not yet developed (or at least, only sparingly and clearly tongue-in-cheek, as in the comment on a store selling “constructionally challenged used furniture”). Certainly, Wishart seems accurate in his historical detail and careful and plentiful in his references to the geography of Athens and the Piraeus, complete with maps. The interplay between Corvinus and other characters is good and the mystery is reasonably thought out though convoluted. Or rather, the mystery appears more convoluted than it actually is. There are many real intricacies to it, but, once we know the full truth at the end, we realize it was pretty straightforward in structure. What makes it so labyrinthine, and a major drawback for me, is Corvinus’ constant recapitulations of the situation as it appears to him at a given moment, always with modifications from the last telling, 25 pages earlier. Corvinus expounds the mystery to Perilla and Callippus a couple of times and to himself as well, and each new disappearance or murder requires a new formulation of his theories. Moreover, this happens time and again, at a length of a couple of pages each time. Perphaps if the recaps were less frequent or shorter, they would have bothered me less. Some readers may agree with Callippus’ advice to Corvinus 237 pages into the novel: “My advice to you is to stop all this silly theorizing before it lands you in real trouble.” This is not to say that most readers will not like this well-plotted novel, which is fun to read. The Baker of the title is an authentic four and a half foot gold statue, dedicated to Apollo at Delphi by Croesus and lost in antiquity after one of the invasions of the oracular shrine. It has resurfaced in this novel (in a believeable way) and everyone wants it, including Corvinus’ step-father, Priscus, the antiquarian. Unfortunately, not everyone is as scrupulous in pursuing it as Corvinus is for Priscus. Accordingly, people die right and left, giving to the statue a kind of Hope diamond aura. Corvinus is more like Lindsey Davis’ detective Falco than Steven Saylor’s Gordianus or Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus. In other words, he is a sort of cross between a smartmouthed Marlowe or Sam Spade and a heavy drinking and socializing William Powell in the movie series based on the Thin Man. If you like Davis and Raymond Chandler, then the figure of Corvinus will be very much to your taste. Wishart includes several nice touches, including the very upscale brothel, that plays an important part in the story, but is not the source of the problem that some teachers might have with assigning the novel in schools. A greater problem would be the repeated instances of the words “shit” and “fuck”. A nice passing reference, which shows Wishart expects his audience to be classically literate is Corvinus’ disparagement of a particularly vile bean soup: “If Pythagoras was right the souls that’d gone into the pot would‘ve done better to have stayed in the queue.” Iin sum, I recommend The Lydian Baker if you don’t mind the perhaps excessively modern languague of Corvinus and others and if you skip rather quickly through the sections of recapitulation, at the risk of losing some of the plot line. You will see the Athens of Roman imperial times “close-up and personal” and meet some very interesting characters along the way. There is plenty of action, including the scene in which Corvinus gets sapped in the true tough-guy detective tradition. Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck) July 2002

- Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck), 7/1/2002

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