What Lot’s Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou, translated from the Greek by Yiannis Panas (Black & White Publishing, 2013).
In 1952, Horace Gold suggested I write a robot novel. I demurred, saying I could only handle robots in short stories. He said, “Nonsense, write a novel about an overpopulated world in which robots are taking human jobs.”
“No,” I said. “Too depressing.”
“Make it a mystery,” he said, “with a detective and a robot sidekick who will take over if the detective muffs the case.”
That was the germ of The Caves of Steel, which was a good science fiction novel and, at the same time, a straightforward mystery. It was the first time (in my opinion) that anyone had brought the two genres into quite so perfect a fusion.” (I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994)
In 2007, when What Lot’s Wife Saw was published in Greece, I was living on a South Pacific Island, dependant on those few books kind people sent me, one of which was Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy (1951). I was somewhat surprised, but also pleased, to discover it held up fairly well for me from my long-ago reading of it and, perhaps emboldened by the discovery, determined later on to re-read Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1954).
What surprised me was not that Caves was a not-very-good-book (it’s not), or that I found myself unable to finish it at last (this was last December, incidentally). But somewhere in the back of my mind, I had taken Asimov’s own view of the book as a given. That this was a mystery. That it was also science fiction. And that it worked as such.
“Perhaps reality is but a mass delusion,” muses Phileas Book, Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s unlikely detective, in the opening sentence of What Lot’s Wife Saw. And perhaps I was equally delusional, because the sad reality is that The Caves of Steel, read as a mystery, is utterly dreadful in its execution. More specifically, Elijah Bailey’s method of investigation is to simply, at various points in the novel, randomly decide (have a sudden epiphany) on the identity of the murderer; to then go and accuse the suspect based on neither evidence nor detection; to be proven wrong; and to then repeat the process.
As an SF novel, then, it is perhaps interesting. As a mystery, it is a complete failure.
What Ioanna Bourazopoulou does, in contrast, is something rather superb. The novel depicts a world in which much of the Mediterranean countries are now underwater, submerged in a flood of Biblical proportions; in which the Dead Sea is now the centre of production of a mysterious Salt, used as a recreational drug by the survivors. Centred in the Dead Sea is a remote Colony and production centre for the salt, managed by a corporation based distantly in Paris. Phileas Book, our reluctant detective, is a compiler of unique crossword puzzles, made up of letters people have sent to each other. Book is brought in by the mysterious corporation, the Seventy-Five, in order to solve just such a puzzle: the six letters of the Colony’s once-distinguished inner core of functionaries as they confront a fantastical murder and the slow deterioration of the Colony by consequence.
Much of the story is given to these letters: these 5 men and 1 woman who, as we are told earlier on, have a talent to deceive. Each is a former criminal, who has assumed a new identity in the Colony (an identity now shredding). A Judge, a Doctor, a Priest, the Governor’s Wife, the Captain of the Guards and the Governor’s Personal Secretary. Not given her own letters is Bianca, the only child born in the Colony, now a young woman with an obsession for Book’s crossword puzzles.
The death of the Governor leads the six to gruesomely, and hilariously, dismember the corpse; and the arrival of a mysterious, seemingly-impossible new governor, who demands his presence be kept a secret, plunges the six into existential despair. Impossible things happen – a black ship arrives, but only the six can see it. The new governor seems intent on destroying the Colony. What’s true? Who’s lying? And who can you trust?
The story is laden with Biblical images; with allegory; it alternates between the six characters, then moves back to Book, in Paris, for a short duration. And it is left till the very end for us to realise that we had been played all along. That Bourazopoulou has told us, from the very beginning, what we are about to read, but we paid no heed; that the clues are all there: and that this is, and has been, an elaborate Golden Age murder mystery of a sort Agatha Christie would have approved of and would make Adam Roberts sigh with envy.
It is a dazzling magic trick of a novel; a compulsively readable account of a world changed and of a people diminished, and of the struggle to regain humanity in the face of disaster; it is unsentimental and in turns grotesque, bizarre and confounding, but it plays fair with its central mystery and yet weaves its muti-genre path so deftly that we never notice.
It deserves applause.