Sunday, February 12, 2012

Herodotus, father of the gentleman thief

The Father of History may also be the father of the gentleman-thief story.

Herodotus turns up in Historical Whodunits, published first under the Mammoth name and later by Barnes and Noble, the only author from the fifth century BC in a collection of authors otherwise from the twentieth century.

Herodotus' story, a selection from the celebrated "Account of Egypt" section of his Histories, concerns a rogue who concocts with his brother an elaborate scheme to plunder the locked treasury of Rhampsinitos (Ramses III) and, when the brother winds up dead, an even cleverer plan to recover the body so their mother can mourn it properly. Except for the brother, all ends well, and the pharaoh so admires the thief's guile that he awards him his (the pharaoh's) daughter's hand in marriage,

Detractors called Herodotus the Father of Lies, though he was generally careful to specify when he was merely passing on stories he had heard.  His hedge ("This king, they said, got great wealth of silver...") only enhances the impression that he is telling a genial, amusing tale of wit rewarded (Read the excerpt from Herodotus here.)

Herodotus joins an honorable roster of proto-crime writers that stretches back almost 5,000 years. Read about some of history's great pre-Chandlers, Christies, and Hammetts here at Detectives Beyond Borders (click the link, then scroll down.)
***
Herodotus' selection is second in the Historical Whodunits  book, after Elizabeth Peters' story of an impossible grave robbery in ancient Egypt. Yes, the story is called "The Locked Tomb Mystery."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012 

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31 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Well, give Peters points for the title anyway.

I hope I do get around to reading Herodotus someday. I think I'd probably like him.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, the title is wonderful, worthy of the first story in a collection.

The book also includes a Brother Cadfael story by Ellis Peters that neatly overcomes my qualms about historical crime fiction. It still may not be my favorites sub genre, but Peters used her setting very well. I may pursue my Cadfael investigations further.

I haven't read all of Herodotus, but he reads as if he were talking to the reader, which makes sense, since I think his work may have been read out loud to audiences. Here's what looks like an accessible introduction to Herodotus.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Historical mysteries are not my first 'go to', but I like well written ones just like in any other subgenre.

I think Cadfael was ruined for me by seeing too many Derek Jacobi episodes some years back. Even though I like Jacobi, these seemed bit light. I have read Peters' non Cadfael mysteries and liked them just fine though.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, yes, and the Herodotus guide looks hopeful. I think what's funny is that modern historians look down on his method, but who saved all those old stories for us if not him? Would we now be happier if he had chosen one as better and left out the other, spurious ones? I don't think so.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Light as in frivolous, you mean? This Cadfael, "The Price of Light," was story was anything but, all somber and spare.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think Herodotus gets some credit for exercising critical judgment in his statements of skepticism about some of the stories he relates. And yes, he has saved much in the way of old stories. I can't count the number of times I've read that some society or person or country was cited first in Herodotus.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

No, more like television lite. It's hard to put your finger on it, because it doesn't have to do all that much with storyline, moe with tone, which tends to be cliche. I don't mean it's not enjoyable, but you don't feel as though you've come away with much after.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I try to imagine how a script and camera work might try to capture the atmosphere of "The Price of Light." Lots of bleak exterior shots of a monastery at night? Cadfael's brow furrowed in thought? A young woman's desperate pleading for her lover? Not hard to imagine that slipping into cliche.

I assuem Derek Jacobi is a good enough actor to aver carried off his end of the bargain.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

He is, but it was a bit like using Angela Lansbury to play Jessica Fletcher on Murder She Wrote.

February 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe he got big bucks to boost the production's respectability quotient

February 12, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I know just what Seana means and concur, but I don't think the reason is hard to find: The Cadfael episodes are only one-hour long. There is no room in one hour for the development, complexities, sub-plots or what have you that give more substance. I don't think there can be many televised British crime series (a genre that, for some mysterious reason, British TV does not do so well) I haven't at least given a screen test, as it were, and off-hand, the only great success with one-hour episodes I can think of is Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett. The one-hour episodes of Wycliffe, which was off-key anyway, I found intolerable. Taggart, a classic series in its early years of two-hour episodes, became a complete mess when it went to one hour, although by that time it had passed its expiry date anyway. The one-hour Midsomer Murders is risible. You must have, I think, in some measure the same qualities we look for in crime novels, and I think one simply can't do that in one hour (minus commercial time in some cases).

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I expect it's novel, if not downright heretical, to suggest the the British don't do televised crime series well. Or maybe it's just that North Americans are brought up to worship those series.

Your comment is of special interest to me, since the Cadfael that occasioned this discussion was a short story rather than a novel.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Well, as much as I like to be agreed with, Philip, I'm not sure it's the hour format that's the problem. Breaking Bad and The Wire were both one hour formats and it seems to have worked fairly well. I like Foyle's War as well. But I think it's probably that trying to cram a novel into an hour format doesn't work, and budgets now dictate that that's the way to go. Also, there is often a formula that writers probably learn is the way to go.

Cadfael always had a fairly large cast of characters and within the time constraints, it was hard to make the characters anything other than flat. It didn't really matter how good the actors were.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

There is certainly a distinction to be made between adaptations of novels and crime dramas written for television, Seana. Though there have been clunkers, British television often produces superlative crime dramas written for television -- I had in mind adaptations of crime novels when I wrote above that they do not do so well. Foyle's War is, I think, exceptionally fine but, including commercials, the format is two hours. Breaking Bad I don't know, but, on the US front, I certainly laud The Wire. The problem there, however, one which was not long ago discussed on FF re crime novels, is that it was a serial rather than a series. I wrote then that 'serial' is a word not often used these days, though it was commonly so on British TV back in the 60s and 70s. We rather need it now, for there are crime novel 'series' developing with so much backstory that they are close to serialization. And so also for programmes such as The Wire, in which each season was really one story related in episodes.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, does your low opinion of British adaptations include the series based on Dalziel and Pascoe and on Frost? I don't know either well, but I thought the actor who played Fat Andy did a fine job of portraying the character as I imagined him from the books. I also thought the Granada Maigret series with Michael Gambon was good, though I'm not sure it captured the mournful attitude of the books. This may be pertinent, since I think each episode was based on a single novel. Then again, Simenon's novels were so short that they avoid some of the problems of adaptation that Seana mentions.

The Wire, of course, famously included a number of fine novelists on its staff, which might have something to do with its quality. Critics and viewers routinely raved that the show was "Just like a novel!"

"Serial" is simply no longer a part of the lexicon of television. I think of the word as a description of the stories that would screen before the feature in movie theaters in the 1940s and before (or so I have read. That was before my time.)

And that reminds me of the time I told a since-departed high-level editor at my newspaper that "continuing serial" was redundant as a title for a series of articles the paper was publishing. I'll let you know when I receive a reply.

"Series" has different meanings in America and in Britain when it comes to television. In Britain, I think it refers to a single season of what we in America call a series. Sure I'm showing off a bit, but I also want to eliminate any possibility of confusion. Hmm, what is the British word for what we in America call a television series?

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, have you seen the Italian television show based on Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels? Each episode is generally based on a single novel, which might prove a good test of your theory. I think the episodes may be longer than an hour, but I'm almost certain none is as long as two hours

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I'm afraid the answer to your first question is 'yes', Peter. Frost I simply cannot watch. I have greatly admired David Jason in many series, but I think here he is badly miscast -- in truth, I have seen him in other dramatic roles and I don't think he can bring them off. He is a comic actor, and in Only Fools and Horses and The Darling Buds of May, I should say peerless as such. The series is also rather far removed from the novels, though not as quite bizarrely far removed as the series 'Gently', which strips the novels of everything except the detective's name.

Another blogger I'm very fond of also admires the portrayal of Dalziel. I'm just befuddled by this. Fat Andy is supposed to be fat, and Warren Clarke is not fat. You only get the sobriquet 'fat' if you're at least abutting the obese, surely. Very expensively clad, he cuts rather a good figure. One thing I think ludicrous is that Hill occasionally had Andy, I think always sitting at his desk, scratch his balls -- with vigour. The producers obviously got nervous about this, so we have Clarke, a very good actor, walk through a door and give his family jewels a quick, light scratch to the side as if he's got a little itch. I strongly suspect Clarke is embarrassed having to do it. And I don't find the programmes one iota funny. God knows, it's better than the first effort at adapting Hill's masterpieces (he refused to let that one continue), but it was Hill who advised another crime writer who asked him about the question of adaptation that he should take the money, walk away, and don't look back.

On Maigret, I'm split. I liked it and thought Gambon perfectly cast, but I still felt the one-hour format was limiting and less than wholly satisfying.

We've agreed that 'serial' is no longer in the lexicon, but as I said above, it really should be. Each season of The Wire was a serial, and if you are made aware of that, you know that you had better start watching from the start. Unforewarned, on DVD I didn't even start with the first season and I didn't know what the hell was going on. As I also mentioned, so it is, increasingly, with some crime novel 'series'. Warnings from crime fiction bloggers that a series should be read in order are rife. Nesbo's Harry Hole novels can stand alone, but on one leg, for there is so much complex backstory and continuing development thereof.

Re the use of the word 'series'. I'm a bit stymied by the way you've worded that one, Peter, so I'll just give a barebones answer. The word in the UK refers to what in the US is called a 'season'. If by "...what we in America call a television series" you mean the whole shebang (e.g., five seasons or five series), I'm afraid that in the UK that too is referred to as a series. Thus, I have not eliminated confusion. The matter is not trivial, for the labeling of DVDs, compounded by additional labeling if you borrow them from the library, can cause considerable befuddlement. They've befuddled me often enough.

I'll just by way of balancing a little of my contrarian negativity recommend The Last Detective -- novels adapted for television and very finely done. That Joan Hickson's Miss Marple and Morse were superb no more needs to be said than that the 'Marple' series, as it is called, first with Geraldine McEwan and then Julia MacKenzie, is a desecration.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In no particular order:

1) In America, The Wire or Seinfeld or The Simpsons are television series, and a year's worth of episodes of each (generally 13 weeks these days, formerly 22 weeks, I think) is called a season. Yet I'll often see British or Irish writers refer to, say, "a new series of The Wire," series meaning what North Americans would call a season.

2) I'll defer to you on Frost, since I've read none of the books and seen just an episode of the television, er, series. I'm a little more experiences with Reginald Hill, but I thought Warren Clarke's fat face got the job done as far as portraying Fat Andy.

3) I have just received notice that the Maigret series starring Bruno Cremer is available on DVD. I have read good things about it. Do you know it?

My verification word: extrati

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Your 1) is what I meant, Peter, so I think we've got that pinned down. Because in the UK 'series' may mean the equivalent of a 'season' or the programme in its entirety, 'series finale' is a particularly confusing phrase -- is it just the end of your 'season' or the end of the programme altogether?

Maigret with Bruno Cremer I hadn't heard of, Peter. I shall go in pursuit of it and thank you for the heads up.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Keep in mind that I have not seen the Cremer Maigret program(me)s. MHz Networks here in the U.S. broadcasts and sells DVDs of crime series from all over the place, including Inspector Montalbano from Italy and many, many other. I may take a flyer on Cremer.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Breaking Bad would be a serial by the British definition, so don't start that one in the middle either, Philip. But do hunt it down. It's great.

I think Michael Gambon is a terrific actor, but I could not get the idea out of my head that these were a bunch of British guys strolling around Paris. Kind of my problem with the recent Michael Dibden series effort starring Rufus Sewell. As someone pointed out, our sense of disbelied was strained by the fact that all the men had English accents and all the women had Italian ones.

I haven't ever quite gotten the mystique about Maigret, though I did recently read a non-Maigret Simenon that I thought was very good--Red Lights, I think it was called.

Haven't caught Camarelli in any form yet, Peter, I regret to say.

Speaking of The Wire, apparently a lot of people think it will give them some cred when it comes to online dating.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'm not wild about the Maigret stories, but the best of them, and some of Simenon's early non-Maigret stories as well, have a certain wistful melancholy that one does not often find in crime writing. Some of his early writing expresses seems like disgust for the squalid lives of perps. When Maigret came into full flower, this had turned to sympathy.

The English accents in the Gambon Maigret were so weird as to constitute an amusing distraction, especially when Maigret's subordinates called him MAY-gray.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and the series did a good job if you got the impression that it showed a bunch of British guys strolling around Paris because it was really a bunch of British guys strolling around Budapest.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Budapest? Yeah, they got me.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I noticed lots of Hungarian names in the credits after one of the episodes. I read later that the producers chose Budapest because its architecture, relatively untouched by development under communism, preserved mush of the air of the mid-century Paris in which the Maigret stories were set.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Preserving "mush of the air" is nice, though unintended.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't believe I have ever made a more poetically evocative slip-up.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Quite possibly not.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I read that collection a billion years ago (I remember it being "the bathroom book" for a while), but somehow I have no recollection of that story at all.

February 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The thing about water-closet reading is that one forgets which story belongs to what collections. The Herodotus is a good story.

February 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The thing about water-closet reading is that one forgets which story belongs to what collections. The Herodotus is a good story.

February 27, 2012  

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