Peter Ackroyd, the English historian and novelist, has an abiding interest in cities, how they began, developed, flourished and declined. His earlier works, "London: The Biography," and "The Great Fire of London" show his admiration for the city of his birth. Of London, Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."
"The Fall of Troy" continues the author's fascination with the first of all cities. Ackroyd uses the exploits of a 19th century German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, who set out in the 1870s to explore Ilium or Troy, now called Hissarlik, by modern day Turks.
The novel itself is like a literary dig, where the reader sifts through the plot, uncovering artifacts, clues, which lead on to an outcome of surprises.
For purposes of fiction, Ackroyd employs a Doppelganger to Schliemann, an archaeologist named Henrich Obermann. The story begins about 1870 and opens in the Athens home of a young Greek woman, Sophia Chrysanthis."
Obermann has worked out a dowry arrangement with Colonel Chrysanthis, the girl's father, without her knowledge. The German explorer is a sophistic character whose booming pronouncements seem to bear weight until examined thoroughly. When pressed, Obermann offers alternative explanations that are at variance with his earlier statements.
Sophia is a beautiful, cultured young woman who has married to please her parents. Herr Obermann is self-taught in archaeology and a schemer for recognition. He is motivated by engorged ambition and ego. His long held theory is that Homer is as much history as poetry. Out of a sense of racial pride, he declares the early people of Troy to be European rather than Asian in origin. He does this by falsifying the antiquities he has reclaimed. This is his proof, in opposition to scholarly evidence to the contrary put forward by visiting scholars.
His go-it-alone attitude gets him into trouble with two American and English authorities in the field, William Brand of Harvard and Alexander Thornton, a young English scholar from the British Museum in London. Both visit the digs at Hissarlik separately to view Obermann's amazing finds. Brand dies mysteriously on the site and Thornton, who admires Sophia's pluck and intelligence, avoids near-death in a footrace with Obermann that bears Olympic overtones. Either the gods are on Obermann's side or he has arranged fatal accidents to punish those who would contradict him.
Ackroyd cranks up the ending of the novel to a preposterous level of death-defying turns, a bit like a black and white silent movie, with cars and trucks involved in near miss accidents. The passion in the book is palpable throughout, however. It is worth the readers' time to hone perceptions of what passes for reality against this fresh retelling of an ancient story.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.
The Fall of Troy
By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
212 pages, $23