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Historical mysteries require a lot from both author and reader. The author must have the ability to show not tell with those dreaded expository lumps. She must know how to look for anachronisms, or at least have an editor, or a bunch of friends who can spot those sneaky little things. And readers must know enough of the period to appreciate the extra effort and work that goes into writing a mystery set In another time and place. The more you know, as a reader, the harder it is to let things slide.
I had great hopes for THE TOMB OF ZEUS, the newest book by Barbara Cleverly, who brought us several books set in India. I read one, wasn't overwhelmed and no longer remember why. But THE TOMB OF ZEUS set in 1928, features a young ambitious woman who, in that awkward time period, wants a career. She's one of the new breed, post-Victorian women who want it all, an adventuress, or at least a modern woman, not content simply to marry well and live the life of privilege to which she was born.
The book disappointed, after a promising start. I found several turns of phrase that I felt sure were incorrect for the time. One is okay, but after you encounter two or three, you can be thrown out of the narrative as I was. If that were the only flaw, it's a minor concern. However, the timing of certain incidents was almost too well-plotted, as if the author had said, "okay now on page 100 this must happen, and on page 275 that must take place. It felt too as if clues were planted rather clumsily.
But wait, there's more. Sigh. Laetitia "Letty" Talbot, Is a young woman with a passion for learning and archeology. She arrives on Crete to supervise an archeological dig; her host there, Theodore Russell, is an odd sort of man, seemingly charming but with an edge and apparently a rather swollen ego. His wife, the bubbly Phoebe, seems to be what we would now call a trophy wife, but she's likeable, welcoming, friendly and enthusiastic.
There's Russell's son George, and a few students and others around to help with the chores of archeology. One of these is William Gunning, whom apparently Letty knows and dislikes. It's not clear why; she seems to blame him for abandoning her emotionally but at the same time, she strikes up a relationship with him almost immediately and clings to him, literally and figuratively when things go wrong.
And they do – as Phoebe is found hanging early in the book. While it might have been suicide, it might not have been. It seems to happen abruptly, without cause. The local doctor seeks Letty's assistance in examining the woman's body, somewhat of an iffy proposition but she is an intelligent woman and she is one of the few people not related to the victim. And I'd wonder at a doctor's asking this of someone of Letty's gender, age and status. Given the times, would he not have sought help from an older woman on Crete or his wife, a trained nurse?
Then there are the archeological efforts. While the work must go on, and Letty is given a map and some workers (and the ever popular William) to assist, when they arrive at the site, it appears that Russell has deliberately misled them to dig in an area that will never offer up any finds. Lucky for the group, the head of the locals owns the land, so he can simply give permission for them to dig elsewhere. Not only do they find things, they find lots of things. Almost immediately, within a day.
Sorry. Archeological digs take years, even decades, often before they bring forth useful treasures. Of course, this is 1928 and the area, while it has been visited by other experts, has not been dug up countless times. Still, the ease with which the team sets up, grids the area, digs trenches seemed very wrong.
Talbot is untrained and much too young to know as much as she does. Some of her knowledge indeed comes from some private training she received from an expert; she appears not only to be an expert on Minoan and Cretan culture, but also on other eras and periods and cultures.
It takes years, lifetimes to become so aware and knowledgeable that one can look at a coin, a found object and know instantly who minted it, and what it represents. And this woman, without even the college degree that would give her some grounding, seems to know it all. Letty Talbot simply seems too young and too inexperienced and well, too good to be true.
I found the book unconvincing. Does Letty hate William or secretly love him? Were Phoebe's many secrets the reason for her death? The complicated love lives of Theodore and George and several other island residents seem very modern and all but in the long run, tacky. Finding the Tomb of Zeus like that just didn't work for me.
Readers who can suspend disbelief and buy into the set-up of the book will no doubt think I'm picking at nits. The setting is very interesting, and you want Letty to succeed if only because she's up against a lot of cultural bias, but she's too much of a superwoman. I just didn't buy what Cleverly was selling here.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, May 2007
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