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Archaeologists at war

I picked up Ben Pastor’s The Road to Ithaca (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015) idly thinking it was about Ithaca (because I have a fondness for the Ionian Islands). It’s not! It’s set on Crete in early June 1941 immediately after German parachutists captured the island. More to the point, much of the story pivots around archaeologists – British, German, Italian and Swiss.

It is much more than a gripping thriller. Crete and its Minoan archaeology are the persuasive context of an international espionage mystery involving Wehrmacht Captain Martin von Bora. Homer’s Odyssey and its echo in James Joyce’s Ulysses are the thread to this yarn. Time and again, though, it is the granular archaeological detail that is unusual (and accurate!). From the description of the feted 1930s Curator of the Palace of Minos at Knossos, John Pendlebury – who in an act of ill-fated heroism perished in the fierce battle – to the vivid field descriptions of Minoan peak sanctuaries (made famous by Pendlebury in his book, The Archaeology of Crete, London, 1939) this is a thriller for those who love real archaeology, a strong narrative and historical characters.

So, who is the author? Ben Pastor is the pen name for Maria Verbena Volpi, born in Rome and an alumnus of La Sapienza’s classical archaeology department, who taught for decades in US universities before turning to writing fiction about the human condition in a time of war.

The Road to Ithaca is a great read. I’ve ordered the prequels to see if these serve up more archaeologists.

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