Although historical detective stories are now a flourishing genre, with Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis being particularly prominent in the field of detective stories set in classical antiquity, back in 1978, when Aristotle Detective was first published, Margaret Doody was something of a pioneer in the genre. Even Ellis Peters had only written the first of the Brother Cadfael series.
As Margaret Doody explains in these interviews (< url = www.shotsmag.co.uk/shots23/intvus_23/mdoody.html > shotsmag and [ URL = www.nd.edu/~mdoody/] Notre Dame), a combination of events in her personal life and in the internal workings of her publishers prevented her from following up on Aristotle Detective with more in the series. It was only because of the popularity of an Italian translation published in 1999, followed by the translation of a short story, that she took up the series again, with five books now under her belt.
She explains that she first had the idea for making Aristotle a detective when she was reading Aristotles Rhetoric for a tutorial she was due to give, with a detective story for light reading.
Aristotle Detective is set in Athens at the time when Alexander the Great and the Macedonians, having secured their influence over Greece, were fighting against the Persians. It tells the story of Stephanos, a young man whose father had died recently leaving him responsible for the family as the only adult male around. Stephanos does have a cousin, Philemon, but he is in exile for manslaughter in a tavern brawl. While taking a dawn walk after a sleepless night, Stephanos happens to be passing a house when the body of a murdered man is discovered inside. To Stephanos horror, Philemon is named as the murderer at the dead mans funeral. Since Philemon cannot return to Athens to defend himself against this accusation, it now falls on Stephanos as Philemons nearest adult male relative to defend him in his absence. Who can Stephanos turn to for help and advice, but his former teacher, Aristotle? Under Aristotles guidance, Stephanos attempts to clear his cousins name by unravelling what really happened.
Having the philosopher who is generally credited with founding systematic logic as the detectives adviser is certainly an intriguing premise, so how does the book stand up as a detective story and as a piece of historical fiction?
Certainly the book does set up what feels like a genuine Greek atmosphere, avoiding, as far as I could tell, any anachronisms (with one minor exception, which Ill mention later) in the setting or in the way the characters think. Stephanos gnomic musings in particular feel authentic.
The book works well as a detective story, with plenty of red herrings to be followed up, secrets to be uncovered, and a bit of violence. It is well-plotted and I certainly wanted to know what had happened, but it was curiously uninvolving as far as Stephanos himself was concerned. I didnt really care all that much about him as a character or feel any concern for his well-being, but only about the elucidation of the puzzle. Aristotle, on the other hand, is portrayed sympathetically as an interesting character, and left me wanting to find out more about him and to read more of his philosophical writings, even though some of his analyses of character seemed a bit far-fetched at times.
I suppose no system of transliteration of Greek names and words can satisfy everyone. However, I for one did find the system used in this book distracting. Krete for Crete is just silly, while other words are effectively disguised and need to be worked out: khoros for chorus is an example that springs to mind. The book does not come with a glossary or afterword from the author on her sources, so a reader without any previous knowledge of Greek society who is unaware of what a chorus is in this context is not helped to overcome any confusion between the most common modern meaing of the word and the meaning here, and certainly is going to have a hard time finding out. It is in this matter of names that I noticed one slip: Poseidon is referred to as Neptune by an Athenian sailor.
Despite these minor complaints, I recommend the book for a not too demanding read and I will certainly keep on reading the others in the series.