Dark suspicions mark "The Fall of Troy"

Peter Ackroyd concocts a blend of history and fiction in his tale of a wife who comes to doubt her archaeologist husband.

Here's a dating tip: If a suitor proclaims, "You will be my Penelope," run for the hills. Odysseus's long-suffering wife was legendarily faithful, but Homer didn't have much to say about her happiness.

Sadly, Sophia Chrysanthis doesn't get a choice. In The Fall of Troy, it's 1867, and her impoverished parents have arranged a marriage for the young Greek woman with a 50-year-old German businessman who believes he's found the site of ancient Troy in Hissarlik, Turkey. Heinrich Obermann is shopping for a classically trained wife who can help with the excavations, not a second Helen.

Sophia's new husband is a cheerful self-promoter who believes that everything about himself – including his bodily functions – is of tremendous interest to others.

"Mr. Gladstone [the British prime minister] has told me, in a personal letter, that I deserve the gratitude of the entire civilized world," he tells a British traveler. "I am inclined to believe him."

So Sophia finds herself shipped off to Turkey to live in a one-room hut with her effusive husband, who's determined to prove that Homer's "Iliad" is historical fact. On her first sighting of her husband's modern siege of Troy, she's awed by the scale of the work.

"It rose above them and, as they came closer, she could see people working upon it; it was teeming with life, like some nest or burrow. It was a living thing.... 'For thousands of years each version of the city was built on top of its predecessor,' " Obermann explains. "What you see are the layers of a cake. A human cake."

Obermann's enthusiasm for the classical world is infectious, and Sophia finds herself growing to love her adopted life. Certainly, she has more physical and intellectual freedom than a typical 19th-century Greek wife, and Obermann treats her as a partner in the dig.

But in addition to ancient artifacts, Sophia keeps uncovering uncomfortable facts about her husband – a Russian first wife about whom she had never heard, for example, and a cache of treasures hidden under their floor.

When she asks her husband about his earlier life, he replies, "We should not dwell upon the past" – which, he admits laughing, is a strange position for an archaeologist to take up.

Then an archaeologist who was scornful of Obermann's methods dies, of either superstition or fever, depending on whether one believes local legends. Already unsettled, Sophia becomes alarmed when a second archaeologist arrives from England, also seemingly determined to disprove her husband's claims.

British writer Peter Ackroyd ("Blake," "London: A Biography," "The Lambs of London") has an impressive range: fiction, nonfiction, literary biography, even poetry.

Ackroyd was shortlisted for a Booker Prize for "Chatterton," his 1987 novel in which he tacked an imaginary ending onto the life of 18th-century British poet Thomas Chatterton. Ackroyd's most lauded novels tend to combine history and imagination, and "The Fall of Troy" is no exception.

The man famed for excavating the site at Hissarlik was, in fact, a German businessman who was a self-taught archaeologist. Like Obermann, Heinrich Schliemann also made a fortune as a war profiteer; married twice, the second time to a much younger woman named Sophia; and was accused of playing fast and loose with his personal history.

Among other things, both the fictional and actual German archaeologists acquired US citizenship under false pretenses. (Nor was Schliemann eager to share the glory of discovery: A British archaeologist named Frank Calvert had been digging at Hissarlik for more than a decade before Schliemann came on the scene, but Calvert was nonetheless reduced to a footnote.)

But aside from a perhaps unseemly grab for fame, the controversy surrounding Schliemann stems from whether he "salted" the so-called Priam's Treasure with additional artifacts to make it seem more impressive. In the novel, Obermann's hubris may have led him to commit crimes against more than academia.

"The Fall of Troy," at less than 250 pages, isn't trying to be an epic. (In fact, a few more pages might have been a good thing: The ending feels a little crammed.) Despite Obermann's bombast, there are no gods or larger-than-life heroes here.

Instead, it's a smallish, well-written mystery set, as Obermann says, at the site where "literature began." Written by a lover of history, it seems designed to send readers back to learn more about either the real or the mythic Troy.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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