Ackroyd takes a 'Fall'

novel | Fall of Troy, By Peter Ackroyd, Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, $23, 224 pages

Nineteenth-century German archaeologist Heinrich Obermann excavates a site in Turkey he believes is ancient Troy, in British author Peter Ackroyd's new historic novel, "The Fall of Troy."

Obermann is joined by his new Greek wife, Sophia, selected much like a mail-order bride. Together, they uncover artifacts that don't prove much at all. That doesn't stop Obermann, a character full of himself, from fitting the evidence to his own Homer's-Troy-was-real theories.

Readers don't have to investigate historical records very long to find the source of Ackroyd's story. A real German treasure hunter named Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) dug into a Turkish hillside near Mount Ida starting in 1871. Schliemann wed a young Greek girl, also named Sophia, who publicly wore jewelry Schliemann called "Priam's treasure."

Other archaeologists never took Schliemann's claims seriously, suggesting the artifacts were manufactured elsewhere and planted at the site. But many agreed that Schliemann ruined the ancient Turkish site, whether it was Troy or not, with his unprofessional and destructive excavation.

Ackroyd makes imaginative use of the Schliemann story in his fictional narrative. Obermann is the main character, but Ackroyd manages to make Sophia the center of consciousness. Readers gradually discern, along with Sophia, that Obermann is not what he pretends.

Ackroyd eventually delivers interesting theories about the origin of the people who settled the Mount Ida region of Turkey in ancient times, thanks to the fictional recovery of stone tablets. The tablets' cuneiform writing gives a visiting scholar a cultural interpretation that conflicts with Obermann's Homeric ideals, creating the novel's central tension.

So far, so good. The last fifth of the 212-page novel, though, collapses like an old stone wall. The plot twists are pure soap opera, not even good soap opera at that. The contrivances spoil even the nascent imagination vs. reality theme Ackroyd tries to develop.

Ackroyd is a splendid, prodigious writer, celebrated mainly for his nonfiction. His "London: The Biography" is a treasure. Ackroyd dug up a museum-quality story for "The Fall of Troy," but it turns out to be a fake.