Death Ex Machina (An Athenian Mystery)
by Gary Corby
Cover Artist: Stefano Vitale
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Soho Crime Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616955199
Date: 19 May 2015 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /
Nico and Diotima, the husband and wife sleuthing team of ancient Greece, investigate one of the most bizarre cases of their careers in Death Ex Machina (following The Marathon Conspiracy and Sacred Games). Supernatural events, combative religious beliefs, a cutthroat theater industry, and mechanical machines all combine to create a unique plot. I wish the author, Gary Corby, had been my ancient history teacher in high school; he makes the subject exciting, intriguing and erotic.
Modern America, I learned, is not much different from ancient Greece; Americans still have their prejudices towards those who are different. Man, in general, has low self-esteem and isn't happy unless he is ridiculing and oppressing others less fortunate. In ancient Greece, metics are looked upon as second-class citizens; Greeks who commit crimes against them, even murder, are often not punished. Migrant workers in America perform manual labor that many of its citizens won't; they are often harassed, even robbed.
Athenians, in the time of Nico and Diotima, are becoming increasingly more dependent on their machines. Death Ex Machina is filled with machines that are used for both good and evil. The crane-like god machine suspends actors above the stage in the Theater of Dionysos. Nico travels on the warship Salaminia, the world's fastest moving boat. We also learn that there is a new medical machine used to immobilize and encase a shattered leg in hopes it will properly heal, allowing the injured party to walk again.
People of different religious beliefs have constantly fought. For example, in Ireland and England, Catholics and Protestants have terrorized each other. In Athens, Nico experiences a taste of this when two religious factions, those who drink wine in honor of the god Dionysos and those who drink beer in honor of the god Sabazios, fight at the Great Dionysia. Again, this boils down to people with low self-esteem who aren't happy unless everyone has the same beliefs and morals as they possess.
Nico and Diotima are newlyweds. Initially, they were a type of Romeo and Juliet with disapproving families. Nico is a citizen, whereas Diotima was once a metic. To complicate matters, her mom, Euterpe, was a celebrated prostitute. Nico and Diotima planned on eloping. Fortunately, their families finally reconciled their differences. The young couple is very admirable. Nico vows to become a great investigator despite his father, Sophroniscus, wanting him to continue in the family business of sculpting. Nico gives money to peasant children and allows an evicted family to live free in his rental property.
Death Ex Machina has a complex plot that centers on the hanging death of an actor. Readers will be intrigued by the historical beginnings of the theater, many aspects of which haven't changed. It's still a cutthroat industry. However, women are now allowed to participate in the acting. Humor plays an important role in the novel's plot. Pericles claims actors will never do well in politics. I couldn't help but think of Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the end, Nico, with his Columbo-like investigative style, gathers together the suspects and reveals the true killer. I didn't have a clue. At one point, readers will feel that justice won't prevail. Thankfully, the quick-witted Nico devises a plan to ensure that it does. Gary Corby infuses actual historical people into his mysteries, giving them a sense of realism. The language is very modern, making them very readable. Only the names of characters and places are sometimes difficult to pronounce. Iíve read the entire series, starting with its excellent debut, The Pericles Commission, and look forward to future adventures of Nico and Diotima.