This is a book about a great achievement and a great man, but it is also a deeply frustrating account of both. It purports to be about Michael Ventris, the man who deciphered Linear B and showed it to be archaic Greek, and only secondarily about the details of the decipherment and what it revealed about the Mycenaean world. In fact the book is best on the details of the decipherment and rather poor on the details of Ventris's life. On the Mycenaean world it is almost non-existent. Robinson does a good job of bringing the architectural career of Ventris out of the shadows, and even linking it up to the decipherment, but the book is so sketchy about the facts of Ventris's marriage and the life of his parents that this can't really count as an account of Ventris's life at all. When did his father die and what did he die of?; what caused his parents to divorce?; why was Ventris's wife so chronically uninterested in his devotion to the decipherment?; what were her interests, and who were her friends? -- the list of unanswered questions goes on and on.
The great revelation of the book -- from a biographical point of view -- is that Ventris's death, at the height of his fame, was very likely suicide. Robinson is too reticent to say it that baldly but he lays out the facts and allows the reader to draw the obvious conclusion. But when he left home that night at midnight, only to crash, one hour later, into a parked truck on a road he had no reason to be on, at high speed, there is so much that the reader wants to know that this book will not tell. Had he and his wife quarelled? They were clearly not close by that point, so had she asked for a divorce? Why did she think he left the house at that hour? In fact the figure of Lois Ventris is shadowy beyond all belief. For large parts of the story I wondered if they were still married. There are no good photographs of her; there are no good photographs of his children; there are no photographs of the house that he designed and built; there are no photographs of any of his other design projects.
And the book has some strange biases as well. When Ventris fell out with Myres and Kolber, Ventris reported this at the time as a `huge row' -- presumably with Kolber alone. But Robinson presents his subsequent letter as evidence of a fatal weakness of personality that would manifest again, shortly before his death. What it rather looks to be evidence of is Kolber's unpleasant personality, and Ventris's reaction to it, nothing more. He gracefully withdrew from a project he knew he could not be part of. And what was driving his later withdrawal from his architecture research position looks to be entirely unconnected.
This reader also felt that the non-academic Robinson was entirely too enamoured of the genius, non-academic Ventris doing things that the plodding academics could only dream of. One very quickly wearies of tales of just how dull and unimaginative the academics of Oxford and beyond are. There is the music of axes being ground here. And Robinson is too inclined to set up a straw man of logic versus the flights of imagination in scientific discovery: he seems to have no idea that he is saying something that everyone knows and knows all too well.
So all in all this is a good book, but one that makes you wish that it were twice as good as it is. And now that this "biography" has come out I doubt that we will have a chance for a second book that might have answered the questions that this book leaves so frustratingly unanswered.