Sunday, 17 May 2015

Penguin no. 1009: Aphrodite Means Death
by John Appleby

For us in Germany, who had a continent at our feet, the war was a much greater opportunity than it was for you, cooped in your crowded islands. To Hersfield and me Greece, of course, was no strange country, but never before had we been able to work so thoroughly and unhampered. With the co-operation of the German army we had no trouble in acquiring manpower for our digging, and the peasants who worked for us, though unskilled, were not expensive. Nor was there any of that tedious negotiation with the Greek authorities about the ownership of what we discovered. You may say it was an archaeologist's paradise.

Aphrodite Means Death has an unusual structure so that reading it could be likened to watching as a blurred image is brought slowly into focus. Everything begins in disarray and confusion, with none of the three characters introduced in the first section having a clear idea about what is going on or about whom they can trust. They form a triangle of suspicion, each trying to construct an understanding of the complete picture from the small sample of things they have seen and heard, but inevitably misinterpreting the events and reactions to which they have been witness.

We meet these characters through the eyes of Jane Arden, an Englishwoman living and working in Athens a few years after the Occupation. She goes for a walk in a pine wood on the last morning of a quiet holiday on an Aegean island, and in doing so she leaves behind the predictability and safety of a formerly uneventful life. One unanticipated event follows another in quick succession - bullets fly far too close to her for comfort in the morning, she is temporarily taken prisoner in a barricaded house in the afternoon, and in the evening she notices that her hotel room and luggage have been searched during her absence. This series of adventures seems to be triggered by having met a fellow compatriot during her morning walk. She is only slightly perturbed by the unusual events, however, believing that she will leave the excitement behind when she returns to the mainland in the morning.

But as a young woman travelling on her own in Greece, Jane has inadvertently attracted attention, and intrigue and danger follow her to Athens. It is the gruff young man she met on her morning walk who is the true focus of everything that happens, but he cannot offer any explanation of the dangerous situation in which she finds herself, as an unanticipated beating has deprived him of his memory. His ideas about himself are only conjectures; he guesses he has come to Greece illegally, and that he is involved in something dangerous because of ongoing attempts on his life, but he has no idea of who he is or of why he left England. Over the course of the story he gradually regains his memory, and as he does the solution to the mystery is revealed.

Aphrodite Means Death is a thriller set in Greece a few years after the Occupation. It focuses on actions taken by German soldiers and their sympathisers at a time when it was assumed that the Germans couldn't lose war. Decisions and actions were conditioned on this faith in their invincibility, and now, if post-war careers are to continue to flourish,  there is much that must be covered up. The story is about the depths to which Nazi collaborators will descend in order to hide their misdeeds and to ensure that no evidence of their past can be used to undermine their future.

The title is a reference to the Venus de Milo, and I actually found the two pages devoted to outlining the statue's history to be the most interesting part of the story. The plot of Aphrodite Means Death is conditioned on the reader's familiarity with the tale of the statue's provenance, and perhaps because such an awareness couldn't be assumed, John Appleby has an uncle provide the protagonist with a potted history late one night over a glass of wine. The following day Uncle John is killed when he falls from the platform at Baker Street Tube Station as a train approaches. In this case, it is knowing too much about the statue of Aphrodite which means death.

The point being made is that while the Venus de Milo could be considered the most renowned statue in the world, this has only been the case for a few centuries; no one living before Napoleon was aware of its existence. It was found on the Greek island of Milos in 1820, where it is known as the Aphrodite de Milos. It was constructed in several parts, and put together like a jigsaw. But to an archaeologist the arms are everything, and this story is also about what would potentially be risked in order to make the statue whole.

I think it was the ancillary aspects which made this story interesting - the references to the Occupation, to the lingering consequences of the Ottoman Empire, and to the history of the famous statue. It was a story which frustrated me initially, but which became more interesting as it developed.


  1. I have a copy of this, and read it years ago, and don't remember much about it. But what I do know is that when I saw my first glimpse of your review I got mixed up and thought it was one of Michael Innes's Appleby books, and then had a flashback that exactly that happens every time I see it, and when I first obtained it and read it and every time I see it on the shelf....

  2. Aphrodite Means Death has an unusual structure so that reading it could be likened to watching as a blurred image is brought slowly into focus

    I particularly enjoyed your description of this book. A good way to describe a few books I have read. This one sounds particularly interesting.

  3. Lovely to see normal service has been resumed - hope you're all settled in now. Aphrodite Means Death sounds a little odd, but interesting.

  4. I think I'd probably read this for the classical connection. Incidentally, have you seen the recent publicity about using 3D scanning/printing to restore the arms (in models not the original) - she remains an object of fascination for many.



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