The Hidden, By Tobias Hill

The tale of a band of rogue archaeologists digging in Greece makes for a gripping literary thriller
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Ever since Donna Tartt made it big with The Secret History, publishers and readers have been searching for the next big clever page-turner. The classic ingredients are as follows: an aspirational, anxious outsider; a glamorous group he/she longs to infiltrate; an impressive or mysterious setting (often connected with higher education); an intellectual or ideological underpinning (the study of ancient Greek in Tartt's case). Add death and madness, and stir vigorously. The recipe worked for The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse (Bloomsbury), just out in paperback, and Ivo Stoughton's The Night Climbers, set in a stately home and various Cambridge colleges respectively.

The risk with aiming so high is that the copies, however enjoyable, are never quite as good as the original. One novel that came close was Barry McCrea's The First Verse (Brandon 2008): the outsider figure there was a young gay man studying at Trinity College Dublin, the group he wished to infiltrate an occult literary club. Now we have Tobias Hill's poetic and menacing The Hidden, which comes closer still.

Our unlucky hero is Ben Mercer, washed up in Greece after the failure of his marriage. Hill echoes Tartt's leisurely pace in the early section, meticulously detailing Ben's work in a dead-end restaurant in a town with the ominous name of Metamorphosis. One night he serves one of his Oxford idols, the brilliant scholar Eberhard. He is off to Laconia to work on an excavation, but firmly discourages Ben's eagerness and curiosity and leaves without saying goodbye.

So Ben follows him to Laconia – ancient Lacedaemonia, land of the Spartans, who left little but their legend. Digs in Sparta are notoriously sparse. Their gods were memorably nasty; and there is also the mystery of how relatively few Spartan citizens were able to hold in terrified subjection the neighbouring population as their slaves or helots. The philosophy of the Spartans lends itself superbly to the Tartt template: any group of young people inspired by their example are bound to descend into fascism sooner or later. (Hill surely knows of the influence of Sparta on the French revolution, in the person of St Just, one of the architects of the Terror.) Hill feeds us early on with the story of the Hidden, the young fanatics who lived loose in the hills, descending periodically to randomly kill helots (which was not a crime). Off-site, a close group of archaeologists, including two sexy young women, engage in the bonding death ritual of the hunt. The interaction of the incomers and the suspicious Greeks is finely drawn, and the natural world is keenly and accurately described.

Ben's own helot background – his family are market-traders – is not very confidently sketched in, and the memories of his marriage failure are a bit maundering, but these are slight lapses. Hill keeps the tension building to a climax which features the most unpleasant final image I've come across in a long time. Quite brilliant.