Tuesday, 18 August 1998

Peter Levi: Grave Witness (1985)

Edition: Quartet, 1985
Review number: 104

Though it is perhaps a little unusual, it is by no means unreasonable for the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University to write thrillers. It is pleasing that he has written a good one (and this is not the only one he has written); clearly he has a familiarity with the genre. You sometimes find that writers entering an unfamiliar genre that they do not read - and they can be quite eminent authors sometimes - do not realise that their "great work" that is to them really original is in fact a sub-standard rehash of the most overworked themes in the genre. (This happens rather more frequently with science fiction I think, than with crime fiction.)

Ben Jonson - yes, really - is an Oxford historian, an archaeologist. He is invited to the north Oxfordshire home of Ralph Iggleby to see some of the items the latter has excavated from a burial mound on his estate. These items include Greek pottery; while not impossible at the period of the grave - from a culture known from finds elsewhere in Europe to have traded with the Greeks - this would be a sensation in British archaeology and greatly enhance the value of the other items found in the grave. Ralph also has a niece, Joy, with whom Ben is greatly taken.

Ben has suspicions about the find; not about Ralph's sincerity but about the question of the relationship of the Greek pottery with the remainder of the grave goods. Visiting London to find out more, he is assaulted in the shop of a dealer in antiquities; then Ralph Iggleby is killed. Ben now has a job to persuade the police that in him they do not see a murderer. He must also work out the purpose of the grave mound contents and who was responsible for the work done there.

In many ways, this thriller is reminiscent of the gentle thrillers of Mary Stewart, where an innocent is caught up in large - and criminal - matters beyond their understanding. The puzzle is not difficult, but the interest lies in how Ben will escape the crooks and at the same time persuade the police of his innocence rather than in solving the riddle of the murderer's identity.

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