Aristotle, Gumshoe A Canadian scholar has won fame for her ancient-world mysteries

by Brian Bethune

MARGARET DOODY is a serious academic, a professor of literature at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, with a Ph.D. from Oxford and a c.v. that lists stints at prestigious American universities and authorship of numerous scholarly publications, including a history of the novel. She’s also, incongruously, CanLit’s newest star in Italy, a country currently wild about our writing. How Doody, 64, achieved this celebrity on the strength of a 25-year-old book, Aristotle Detective, is a story with as many twists as her mystery novel, involving not only the Greek philosopher himself, but also Canadian thinker George Grant, as well as an Italian journalist with a good eye and — quite possibly — the will of the gods.p. Born in St. Martins, N.B., Doody went to Dalhousie University in Halifax in 1956, before moving on to Oxford, where she became a specialist in 18th-century literature. The period, she says “suits me down to the ground — very witty, very curious, and far less sentimental than the 19th century.” But Doody also admires the ancient world, a love cemented in her by the remarkable George Grant, who taught Dalhousie’s introductory philosophy course. Best known for his fierce Canadian nationalism, especially as expressed in Lament For a Nation, Grant was also an extraordinary teacher. “He was so vivid himself,” recalls Doody, “that he made them all come alive — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — and gave us a sense of what it would have been like to know them.”p. One rainy spring night in Oxford, rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric and thinking again of “how unsurprised by human weakness he was, how he had the disillusioned eye of a detective,” Doody developed the basic concept of Aristotle Detective. In 1978, the novel came out in Britain to good reviews. Doody wrote a sequel, Aristotle and Poetic Justice. But the world had turned in the interim. Her publisher was bought out, her agent left the business, and no one seemed interested in the new book. Even before that, secretaries in Wales had thrown out the single typewritten copy of another novel — this one a work of literary fiction set in modern Canada — after Doody had moved to California. “One of the biggest blows of my life,” she matter-of-factly calls it, one almost replicated at Berkeley, where the middle 100 pages of yet another novel were lost. By 1982, says Doody, it seemed clear that the gods “didn’t want me to write fiction.”p. Enter Beppe Benvenuto 17 years later. Doody calls the journalist her Resurrection Man — in 1999 he came across an abridged translation of Aristotle Detective and suggested to the Italian publishing house Sellerio that it issue a complete edition. There was a second printing within the year, and when Sellerio asked if there was any more, Doody was happy to pull Poetic Justice out of the drawer in which it had lain for almost two decades. Her popularity soared. She wrote a third instalment, Aristotle and the Secrets of Life, and on the strength of her Italian success, picked up a British publisher (she still doesn’t have a Canadian one).p. Asked why Italy is so taken with her books, Doody points to their Mediterranean flavour, and her historical accuracy. They’re also very good reads. Doody’s Aristotle is her 18th century personified. Witty, curious and unsentimental, the philosopher delights in quashing the idealism exhibited by his Dr. Watson-like foil, Stephanos. In an ironic twist, though, Stephanos’ flights of fancy — like his suggestion that it might be a good thing for Athenian women to have some basic (very basic) civil rights — are often obvious to readers, while Aristotle’s learned demonstration of female inferiority only shows that the greatest thinkers are limited by their time and place.p. Doody has completed the first draft of a fourth mystery, and is pondering the fact that her series must inevitably come to the time when the Athenians turn on Aristotle, a resident foreigner, and drive him from the city. “He’s just like me with my green card,” notes Doody, who maintains her Canadian citizenship. “Maybe I should take warning from that,” she laughs. But given her new writing laurels on top of her distinguished academic career, Doody is not likely to share her character’s fate.

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