Author: José Carlos Somoza
Year published: 2000
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of detective: A “decipherer of enigmas”
Setting & time: Athens, ancient Greece
Some themes: Murder, philosophy, obsession, translation
It is the time of Plato. A beautiful young man is found murdered on the outskirts of Athens, and his teacher, the philosopher Diagoras, hires Heracles Pontor, Decipherer of Enigmas, to investigate the death. In footnotes we see the comments of the translator who is translating the ancient manuscript that tells the story, into a modern language. As the investigation progresses, the translator gets more and more involved in the story, even begins to think he is in it, and traces, for the benefit of the reader, some clues that are scattered throughout the text and seem to refer to the 12 labours of Hercules. The translator thinks they are the key to a secret meaning hidden in the text (and the reader scents an ancient secret about to be revealed). Someone seems to be stalking the translator, and he gets more and more paranoid as the translation progresses and more clues are revealed in the translation text. But the story is not all is seems, and once the reader thinks she has been very clever and solved both mysteries, an unexpected twist appears, one that, while not unhinted at, will take most readers by total surprise.
The story begins as a straightforward mystery, but quickly becomes a mystery within a mystery when the translator begins to tell his story in the footnotes. But that’s not all, there are several more layers or frames to the story that only become visible as it progresses. It is not necessary to have a good grounding in philosophy to enjoy the story, but those familiar with Plato’s theory of the Idea and the metaphor of the cave will perhaps have a deeper understanding of the philosophical discussions. The twists are numerous in both stories, and can be a bit confusing. The ending unravels the mystery and brings it to a conclusion, but some readers may feel unfulfilled by it and annoyed at the author for tricking them, while others will feel it is the only logical ending to the story.
For me, as a translator, there is an added dimension to the story. I don’t know if Somoza has worked as a translator, but some of the translator’s comments can be seen as descriptions, real and metaphorical, of problems translators come across in their work.
Rating: A twisty mystery to make you think. 3+ stars.