The Singer from Memphis covers ancient espionage

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Whether in classics, such as Homer’s The Iliad, or contemporary novels, like Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, the dominant literary tone toward ancient Athens is one of gravitas and reverence for the deeds of warriors, gods, and monsters. Rather than extending this mythology, Gary Corby treats antiquity with wit and whimsy in The Singer from Memphis. Disguised as a humorous caper plot, Corby’s novel combines the cynical tone of hardboiled detective fiction and the intrigue of espionage to make the classical world feel current.

When Athenian private investigator Nicolaos is contracted to guide aspiring historian Herodotus on a research trip through Egypt, various political interests complicate Nico’s straightforward protective detail. As his travels coincide with the Egyptian rebellion against the Persian Empire, Nico is charged by his statesman, Pericles, with a more difficult assignment: to represent Inaros, the Prince of Libya, in the delicate matter of overthrowing the Persian king Artaxerxes and establishing Inaros as the new Egyptian Pharaoh. Threatened by assassins, mercenaries, and crocodiles, Nico enlists the help of Djanet, the titular singer, to find the tomb of Psamtik and steal the late pharaoh’s crook and flail, the regalia that will symbolize the rightful ruler of Egypt.

Although serialized as an Athenian mystery, The Singer from Memphis is essentially a spy novel in its portrayal of treachery, bureaucratic corruption, and geopolitical jockeying. Corby frames his story in espionage terms, describing a Greek military advisor’s defection to Persia and characterizing Athenian-Persian relations after the Spartan’s last stand at Thermopylae as an ancient cold war. Indeed, Corby incorporates modern Cold War narrative conventions, such as cover stories and institutional agendas. Academic and entertainment professions, respectively, position Herodotus and Djanet to collect and circulate crucial information to their handlers, while Nico, the moral-driven protagonist, finds himself the pawn of the Tjaty, the Prime Minister of Egypt and head of its Public Service. Replete with distrust and double-crosses, The Singer from Memphis includes a classic espionage ending in which the individual agent’s will proves futile against the government machine.

In the tradition of historical fiction and spy narratives, The Singer from Memphis is a meticulously researched blend of fact and fiction. Corby enhances his novel with paratext, including a chronology that recounts 69 years of invasion, rebellion, and war and a lengthy Author’s Note that documents the real events and personages that populate Corby’s fictional world. The inclusion of Herodotus may seem incidental, but his The Histories provides the rich backdrop against which Corby sets his tale, as he incorporates accounts of cultural customs and develops minor characters from Herodotus’s comprehensive record. Yet, the novel avoids feeling overly didactic by balancing its history with humor, from Nico’s ironic contempt for religious rituals and government practices to oblique Elvis references that play on both the title and espionage themes of “suspicious minds.”

Corby’s comical approach makes light of darker crime fiction themes in hardboiled and espionage novels. His historical analysis, however, grounds The Singer from Memphis in a serious, realistic context that demythologizes pop culture depictions of the ancient world by replacing vengeful gods with crooked institutions. In this sense, Corby makes foreign affairs of the ancient world feel surprisingly timely. While the Persian Empire may no longer exist, the three-cornered war portrayed in The Singer from Memphis speaks to ongoing geopolitical instability and conflicts of power in Egypt and Libya.

The Singer from Memphis; 352 pages; Soho Crime, 2016.

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