Saturday, 16 February 2002

David Wishart: The Lydian Baker (1998)

Edition: Sceptre, 1998
Review number: 1068

There is considerable competition in the field of historical crime fiction, which has blossomed in the last decade or so, and the Roman period seems to be among the most popular (following the medieval). Even so, it is odd that I have not already come across the novels of David Wishart, of which this is the fifth. Like Lindsey Davis' Falco novels, the style of these Corvinus stories is in imitation of Raymond Chandler. Wishart is more serious than Davis, though, and (having been a classics teacher) more academic. This means that his novels stand somewhere between those of Davis and Steven Saylor.

Corvinus, an upper class Roman living in Athens, is a rather different central
character from Falco and Gordianus, both of whom are professional investigators. In The Lydian Baker, he becomes involved in a series of murders related to a large solid gold statue, which Corvinus is bidding for as agent for his stepfather, a keen art collector. The statue really existed and is at the centre of a real mystery. Originally given by Lydian king Croesus to the oracle at Delphi, the 1.5m statue disappeared before the first century AD, fate unknown. It was probably stolen by one of the groups which sacked Delphi in the previous couple of centuries (these included Greeks, Gauls and Romans). The statue was probably of a Lydian goddess, but it was nicknamed the baker because it was in the form of a woman holding a loaf and a wheatsheaf.

The Lydian Baker is an interesting mystery, with a detailed and convincing background. The occasional point may be beyond the reader's knowledge (most people are unlikely to get asides dependent on knowledge of untranslated Greek names), but that doesn't really harm. A more serious problem is that Wishart's unrelenting Marlowe pastiche becomes irritating after a while, but that hasn't stopped me wanting to catch up on the earlier novels in the series.

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