Peter Tonkin, author of many adventure and murder mystery books, takes his skills to another age: mythical Ancient Greece. Homer’s epic tales of Odysseus and the Trojan war have been favourite holiday reading for many years. What, he wonders, would happen if he took Sherlock Holmes and dropped him into the Mycenaean Bronze Age?
July 20 years ago; amongst the fishing rods and golf clubs, the Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl books we were taking on our family summer holiday on the Isle of Man, I also packed EV Rieu’s acclaimed translation of Homer’s Iliad.
For some years before, I had used each long summer vacation as a teacher to write an adventure novel in the Mariner series, but I now planned to work on something else. I had come up with three promising alternatives for new series – murder mysteries set in Elizabethan England, spy stories set during the last days of the Roman Republic and Sherlock Holmes-type thrillers set during the Trojan War.
The Trojan project seemed most promising. The cast of characters was largely defined. My equivalent to Holmes was clear. The plot outlines had mostly been sketched in for me by Homer, Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus.
The war situation made the investigations into yet more dead bodies particularly challenging – both for the author and his detective (cf Ellis Peters’ wonderful One Corpse Too Many). And – in many ways most tempting of all – everyone was stuck in one place doing nothing but trying to kill each other for ten solid years. Now that’s what I call potential for a series!
Poor old EV Rieu, increasingly battered, accompanied my family on many summer holidays thereafter as I began to write first the Elizabethan mysteries and then the Roman spy stories. In the meantime, Brad Pitt and the BBC both tried to make Troy fall with varying degrees of success.
It seemed inevitable that someone else would see the potential for the series that I thought I saw. Several notable writers including Colleen McCullough, Pat Barker and Madeline Miller told and retold the story to wide and well-deserved critical and popular acclaim; but fortunately their focus lay elsewhere.
And then, this February, enjoying a 70th birthday break in Egypt during the last days before lockdown, everything changed. I managed to sell the concept of three short thrillers to my publisher Sharpe Books and was given permission to proceed in the hope of producing more should the initial results prove popular.
EV Rieu’s Iliad was now accompanied by his Odyssey and both were supported by Martin Hammond’s new translation for Penguin books and Caroline Alexander’s translation on my Kindle, standing cheek by jowl beside George Chapman’s groundbreaking translation (1598 and following) which so inspired Keats.
As well as the creative work referred to above, I also took Caroline Alexander’s brilliant commentary The War That Killed Achilles and Keld Zeruneith’s fascinating The Wooden Horse. This book was particularly interesting, given the nature of my project, as it traces ‘the liberation of the Western mind from Odysseus to Socrates’ using Odysseus and his concept of the wooden horse as a symbol for the movement of Greek thought from simple observation to reasoning and analysis.
On my return into almost immediate lockdown, I turned to You Tube and spent many happy hours in the company of Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War’, as well as a range of other experts examining possible historical accuracy of Homer’s tale, Mycenaean Bronze Age warfare; the tactics, arms and armour of the period.
As a present to myself I bought the facsimile edition of A Study In Scarlet as first published in 1887, from which I planned to take the tone and style of Watson’s first meeting with Holmes – then move it back to 1190 BC, concentrating on the reality and practicalities of life at the time as far as we understand it all today. No semi-divine heroes; no gods and goddesses interfering with earthly matters; just men and women preparing for and suffering through the most famous conflict in Western history.
Of course, The Iliad only covers the relatively short period of 50 days or so during the tenth year of the siege. In order to learn what happened (or was supposed to have happened) in the build-up and the aftermath, any aspiring chronicler must turn to the other authorities.
And they are fertile ground. The plots of the three proposed adventures appeared before the attack on Troy itself began.
They involved the hunt for Achilles, Agamemnon’s problems with his fleet becalmed at Aulis and the sack of the city of Lyrnessus. The characters were all there from the start. Odysseus and Nestor sent to find Achilles; Odysseus at Aulis with Agamemnon and his thousand ships; it was not stretching credibility too far to have him also involved in the attack on Lyrnessus and Achilles’ fated seizure of his royal captive Briseis.
It was also seemingly simple to weave some murders into these stories and then set Odysseus on to solving them and unmasking the perpetrators through the (Holmesian) analytical logic Keld Zeruneith describes in his book.
But if the research was dry and painstaking, I planned to make the stories themselves exciting and suspenseful. One of the most appealing aspects of Holmes to my mind is his reluctance to sit everyone down and go through the clues until he has unmasked the culprit. He seems happier explaining things ‘on the hoof’, so to speak, while rushing to save the day. Sort of: “This is what really went on, Watson – now let’s go and stop that damned hound before it catches Sir Henry! Got your revolver? Good…”
That was the objective for Beware of Greeks then; the title referring of course to Virgil’s Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, traditionally translated as ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’.
I planned to portray real men and women, the sons and grandsons of heroes who are treated as immortal even in death, seeking ways to make themselves equally unforgettable. Preparing to do so through warfare. Motivated by understandable human fears, hopes, secrets and desires, not by the interference of the Gods. Living and dying in a world as close to a historically accurate one as it was possible for me to recreate – ‘real’ enough to suspend the readers’ disbelief at any rate.
And, moving through all this, just as Holmes moved through Victorian London, the man whom Homer makes Helen describe to King Priam as “[the] master of all kinds of trickery and clever plans…” Odysseus, King of Ithaca.
Peter Tonkin attended Queen’s University Belfast. His first novel, Killer, was published in 1978; since then he has published the 30-book Mariner series of adventure thrillers, the six-book Master of Defence series of Elizabethan mysteries and the five-book Caesar’s Spies series set in Ancient Rome, as well as occasional novels and short stories. Beware of Greeks is the first of a proposed new series.