What is a stoa?

Nico & Diotima do a lot of lurking, and they mostly lurk behind the pillars of a stoa.

A stoa is a classical Greek portico.  A stoa in classical Athens is where you go to see and be seen.

You would find people like Pericles and Socrates walking between these columns, under the shady roof, discussing affairs of state, or philosophy, or more likely passing on the sordid details of the latest scandal, and they would be surrounded by hundreds of like-minded citizens, all of them just hanging out.

You would also find Nico and Diotima behind the pillars, listening in on the conversations and going about their detective work.  On most of the book covers they are drawn doing exactly that.

Here on the left are Nico & Diotima, with a stoa in the background (from the cover of The Pericles Commission).  

On the right are two other dodgy characters.  That's me and my wife Helen, in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalus, in the agora of Athens.  We couldn't resist doing the cover shot.


That stoa is a reconstruction built during the 1950s of a for-real one from classical times.  It realy would have looked much like this.

Here's a view of the same building, taken from the Acropolis.


You need to remove the Byzantine church in the foreground.  Then replace all the vegetation with a lot of vendor stalls, because that space to the left of the Stoa of Attalos is the ancient agora of Athens, which obviously has seen better days.  If you then replace the buildings in the background with whitewashed daub double-storey dwellings then you have the center of classical Athens.  

More on that tomb in Amphipolis

A while back I wrote about the increasingly famous dig at Amphipolis, and explained why Alexander the Great is not in there.

The plot thickened slightly a few hours ago, when the Greek Ministry of culture released pictures of a terrific mosaic.

Here's the mosaic (I've taken all these from the press release):

Yes, the centre is damaged.  But the rest of the image is remarkably clear.

The guy on the left is Hermes.  He's got the staff in his left hand (it's called a caduceus).  He's got the wacky hat.  The hat is because Hermes travels a lot.  He wears the wide-brimmed affair to keep the sun off.

He won't need it where he's going on this trip though, because Hermes is leading someone to the afterworld.

In addition to being Messenger of the Gods, Hermes also leads dead people to Hades.  In that guise he's known as Hermes Chthonios.  If you're an H.P. Lovecraft fan then you'll be familiar with that last word.  It simply means "underground".

Weirdly, the guy on the chariot is probably Lord Hades himself.  It might seem odd that Hades needs a guide to get home, but this is a standard motif.  He's sometimes depicted on a chariot racing home with a very reluctant Persephone in tow.

The extremely erudite and in this case well-informed PhDiva has suggested the guy on the chariot might be Philip II, who was the father of Alexander.

Don't get excited.  This isn't the tomb of Alexander's father, unless there's something hideously wrong with the identification of another tomb at a place called Vergina.

Personally I think the jury will be out for some time on the identification of the driver.  If it's Hades, then it really doesn't say much about who's inside.

What is very interesting is that the picture looks much like another one at Pella, which was the capital of Macedonia in the time of Philip and Alexander.  The Pella mosaic shows an Abduction of Helen by Theseus.

If you told me the same artist did both, I wouldn't argue.  More likely it was a standard style of the times.  But it makes identical dating and the link to Pella very strong.

It also raises the probability that the tomb holds someone  closely associated with Alexander.  But that's just a guess.  Who it is remains a mystery.

Soho International Crime Club! Plus, that duel in hot air balloons.

If you're a fan of mysteries, thrillers and crime, then let me advert you, as the Duke of Wellington would say, to the Soho International Crime Club.  It's a subscription system where they feed you a mystery a month.   It's an even better deal if you're fond of global death, because a lot of the books are set in exotic locales, such as (ahem) classical Greece.

While on the subject of global death, I previously wrote about the most unusual duel in history, which took place in Paris, France, in 1808.  If you missed it, Soho has reproduced the article for their own web site.  Hop on over if you'd like to read about blunderbusses and hot air balloons.

Gary in Washington DC and New York

I'll be in Washington DC and then New York, first week of May 2014.  If you're in either place, and would like to say hello, then I would love to meet you.

Here's the schedule:

I'll be attending the Malice Domestic fan con in Washington DC.  It's on at the Hyatt, and here's the program info.

If you're attending Malice, then on Friday at 2.30 pm there'll be a coffee hour which I'll be hosting.  Do come and say hi!

I'll be part of a panel on the Saturday morning at 9am, on the subject of (what else but...) historical mysteries.

If you're not attending Malice but you're a reader and just want to meet for a chat, then please let me know and we'll work something out.  I'll be in Washington the entire day of Thursday before the con starts, and I should in theory have spare time in and around the con schedule.

On Monday May 5 through Wednesday May 7 I'll be in New York.

I'll be signing books at Mysterious Bookshop on the Tuesday afternoon at 2pm.  I'd love to see you there.

Otherwise, if you're in New York and would like to say hi, email me and we'll see if we can work out times.

Coffee cups: a tool for writers

As you probably know, authors tend to drink coffee.  Here is a present I received from my daughter, Catriona.  Four coffee cups like this:

I was slightly nonplussed when I opened the box.  Yes, they are very lovely coffee cups.  They are also rather black.

Until you add hot coffee.  Then the black disappears to reveal the picture hidden beneath...

It's a Pericles Commission coffee cup!  I now have a cup for each cover.  Note the coffee within.  My devious daughters and wife took the high-res bitmaps used for the covers to have these made.

Here is The Ionia Sanction cooling down.  It reverts to black.

The entire family!  Apparently I have to write more books if I want more coffee cups.

And the latest release, complete with cappuccino: