Sunday, January 15, 2012

2,505: The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

The battered body of a young, married woman lies dead at the foot of a cliff on the Greek holiday island of Thiminos. The corrupt local Chief of Police has taken a bribe to determine the death an accident and to sweep it under the carpet as quickly as possible. And there, matters might have rested save for the arrival on a ferry from the mainland of Hermes Diaktoros, Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Detective.

 Hermes announces his intention to investigate the death of Irini, making vague comments about the authority under which he is acting. Soon he begins to strip away the veneer of the local populace and to discover a web of petty intrigues, infidelities and deceptions that pervades the island and has led to misery, family breakdown and, ultimately, murder. Using methods that are unconventional to say the least, Hermes imposes his own brand of justice, meting out punishment to those he holds responsible for Irini’s death, as well as the actual killer.

The Messenger of Athens is one of the most unusual crime novels I have read in recent years. Readers looking for a conventional
whodunit that follows the rules of detective fiction and challenges them to solve the puzzle may be disappointed. This is emphatically not one of those types of detective story. Instead, it inhabits a space somewhere in between crime writing and literary fiction. By interweaving two narrative threads, separated in time and by using multiple points of view, Zouroudi focuses as much, if not more, on the corrosive and misogynistic social beliefs of the islanders and the tough lives that they lead once the summer sun fades and the tourists go home, as she does on the process by which Hermes uncovers the murderer.

Hermes himself does not fit the profile of your typical fictional detective. Admittedly he has the requisite quirky habits (in Hermes’ case, this entails wearing white tennis shoes with an expensive suit, continually whiting out marks on said shoes and smoking old-fashioned cigarettes) but these didn’t really work for me. His character and motivation are kept deliberately vague and his near omniscience and unclear status makes him almost like a deus ex machina, which impression is only heightened by the unorthodox retribution he metes out to those he deems guilty. Unlike detectives like Poirot (of whom there are some faint echoes in Hermes), he sets himself out as judge, jury and executioner as well as investigator. Nevertheless, he is a sympathetic character who shows real kindness to those who have suffered and the lack of clarity around his character only makes me more curious and interested in him.

If I’m being perfectly honest, most of the other characters (with the honourable exceptions of Nikos, Sofia and Lukas) are as grubby a bunch of spiteful, bigoted and small-minded individuals as you could hope to find and, despite its extra-legal nature, Hermes’ justice seemed appropriate and highlighted the difference between legal and natural justice.

Zouroudi’s real strength, though, is in the sense of place and the atmosphere she creates. I was reminded of Little Infamies by Panos Karnezis, a wonderful collection of short stories about life in a Greek village, in the portrait Zouroudi draws of a fundamentally isolated and inward looking community and the perasive gossip and everyday deceit that permeates the island. Her pacing is leisurely, enabling her carefully to tease out the individual stories that make up the plot and slowly pulling us to its conclusion and I can’t help but think that there is some similarity between Zouroudi and Georges Simenon when it comes to creating atmosphere.

I suspect that if you come to The Messenger of Athens expecting a classic detective story, you may end up being disappointed but, if you look at it as a novel that happens to have a detective and a crime at its centre, it is excellent and well worth your time. I have already downloaded the sequel, The Taint of Midas, to my Kindle and I am looking forward to getting better acquainted with Hermes Diaktoros.

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