The Great Legend by Rex Stout (1916; 1997)
This week is Rex Stout Week for your Friday's Forgotten Book crew. Stout is best known for his stories about the one-seventh of a ton sleuth Nero Wolfe. But Wolfe is just one part of his oeuvre. In the mystery field alone, Stout also wrote books about Dol Bonner, A.B.C. Hicks, and Tecumseh Fox -- even Wolfe's frequent foil, Inspector Cramer, was featured in a novel of his own. Stout is also credited with a cookbook, two mystery anthologies, a lost race fantasy, a political thriller, several romances. a Graustarkian novel of intrigue, assorted thrillers, and -- my favorite -- The Illustrious Dunderheads, a 1942 scathing litany of sitting isolationist and pro-Nazi members of the sitting House of Representatives.
And then there's The Great Legend, the story of the Trojan War from the viewpoint of one (dare I say it?) feckless, albeit well-placed, Trojan. It first saw light as a five-part serial in All-Story Magazine from January 1 through January 29, 1916. It took over 80 years for the tale to make it to book format when issued by Carroll & Graf in 1997.
It's now the ninth year of the Siege of Troy. It's been sort of a lackluster siege. Sure, there have been fights and sallies and people have been killed on both sides, but there have been no major battles, no epic fights to be recorded in song and legend. Perhaps a good reason for this is that Achilles, Greece's greatest hero, has been sulking in his tent and refusing to fight.
The story is told by Idaeus, the twenty-two year old son of Dares, the priest of Muciber. Idaeus is a flawed character, certainly not a hero in the Greek (or Trojan) sense, but a somewhat rash youth who has a higher opinion of himself than is merited. When the only brother of Idaeus is killed on the battlefield, Dares uses his influence to have Idaeus appointed as keston (sort of a cross between chief of staff and aide de camp) to King Priam. Idaeus soon finds himself in a confusing relationship with three women: the Argive Helen (a coquettish troublemaker), Hecamed (a slave. born a princess, captured by Achilles and then stolen by Idaeus), and Gortyna (a low-born slave serving Helen). Idaeus' total misunderstanding of each of these women move the plot forward and insure Troy's doom.
Idaeus also seems handicapped because he is an atheist. Practically everyone else in the saga believe in (or at least give lip service to) the gods. His individuality feeds into his sense of pride and his sense of pride leads to several grave missteps.
None of the players in this novel come across nobly. King Priam is a befuddled old man whose best days are well behind him. Aeneas is a passe blowhard given to long speeches. Paris is an egotistic popingjay who is one of the weakest of Priam's fifty sons. Anchises is old and ugly, certainly not the type Venus would choose to give her a son like Aeneas. On the Greek side, Menelaus is weak and boring. Ulysses is untrustworthy and has little honor. Ajax is a bully. Nestor does not keep his word. Agamemnon, mostly offstage, is imperious. Of the two heroes, Achilles is a pouty and Hector is tragically overconfident. Idaeus himself seems to have perfected the art of retreat (though able to come up with acceptable excuses) and fights only when absolutely necessary to save his neck. Of the whole kit and kaboodle, only Cassandra -- doomed never to be believed -- comes across as sympathetic.
All the above is part of the joy of the novel. There's action aplenty,as might be expected from an All-Story serial, and the entire story of the Trojan War is viewed from a fresh, entertaining, and pulpish angle.
If you want to try something different from early in Stout's career, this book may suit the bill.