Blood & Gold, and an earlier thriller by Leo Kanaris, Codename Xenophon, are perfect examples of how well-crafted detective fiction from another country opens windows on to a brave new world, and shows that there are more similarities than differences between us all as we get on with the business of living in failing Western societies.
As the post-war liberal bandwagon begins to roll backwards, overtaken by the populist demagogue’s juggernaut of lies, we need more cracking good crime stories like this one, to entertain, illuminate, and inform.
The Greek crisis
“He made a sandwich with some feta and sweet red peppers in oil, spread out the daily newspaper on the kitchen table, and began to read as he ate. The sandwich was as good but the news was bad. The Prime Minister, Mr Tsipras, had called new elections. Experts were trying to predict who would win. George found it hard to concentrate. National politics gave him a deadly sense of déjà vu. One gang of parasites succeeding another, sucking the life out of the nation, giving nothing back but empty promises. How much did the people of Greece have left to give?” Leo Kanaris’ Athens-based private detective, George Zafiris, is in the Chandleresque mould: tough and world-weary, yet principled and with a heart.
Zafiris sets out to find out the truth about the ‘accidental’ death of his old friend Mario Filiotis, Mayor of Astypalea, who is fatally hit on his bicycle by a truck full of firewood. At the funeral, the pall bearers slip and drop the coffin which splits open to reveal bags of Hellenistic and Roman treasure in place of Mario’s body. A principled individual, the mayor had actively got behind road building projects, the restoration of old buildings and, we discover, a social project to build a medical school involving big business, public funds, Europe, charities and Mr Merkulov, a Russian businessman whose amorality is such that whatever makes money is good, just don’t look how . . .
A second seemingly unrelated ‘accidental death’, that of a beautiful and talented concert violinist falling off a cliff, brings Zafiris up against an opaque wall behind which lurk potentates protected by money and influence, “people who had no need of others, no belief in anything but their own advancement.” The violinist’s besotted, grieving husband takes refuge in the Byzantine monasteries of Mount Athos: is he the killer, or the fall guy?
Zafiris and his sidekick, Haris, team up with Sotiriou, head of Athens Police violent crimes unit. Warnings and death treats intensify as they unearth a bloody web of intrigue, spearheaded by a Mafiosi character, Kokoras, and the Marangos brothers, involving the illegal export of antiquities, construction companies, restaurants, bars, hotels, and prostitutes working as maids. Their Georgian-Russian big bosses pulling the strings remain all but invisible.
As the action intensifies, we are treated to a mini tour of ancient Greece – Vergina, Pella, Astypalea, Mount Athos and its “monasteries clinging like swallows’ nests to cliffs above the sea” – and an unhealthy fascination with priceless antiquities. This contrasts with the impoverished Greece of today: “He passed the familiar shops, struggling after six years of crisis to do any business at all: the upholsterer and curtain-maker, who had once laid out luxurious Italian fabrics in his window and now displayed a single dowdy chair with a yellowing card saying ‘all work undertaken’; the model aeroplane shop dusty with unsold boxes; the music store, no longer frequented by hopeful young guitarists and drummers; the bookshop, the shoe shop, the printer, all empty of customers. Only Evantheia the florist struck a positive note. Between the shops and along the apartment blocks every piece of spare wall had been sprayed with graffiti. Property is theft. Banking is terrorism. Merkel is Hitler. Pay up or we’ll quit the euro…. Simplistic slogans and hideous cartoon graphics. Hooded figures of death, swastikas and dollar signs. Did anyone believe this nonsense?”
“Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die”
Zafiris enjoys his food and often has meetings in tavernas and cafés over a plate of grilled sardines, Greek salad, or meze of feta cheese and olives, washed down with retsina. Fig jam is a favourite. Despite the crushing atmosphere of cynicism and lost hope, many individuals go about their daily lives trying to operate with self-discipline and concern for others, our earth, our future, in the face of a tidal wave of dishonesty and self-interest. Politicians and the press are locked in a cycle of increasingly hysterical anti-immigrant rhetoric, avoiding the uncomfortable truth that the real problem is socio-economic inequality with people of all backgrounds facing poverty and exclusion as disaster capitalism takes hold worldwide. “Germany had taken as many as it could. Macedonia had closed its southern border. Greece was forced to look after them until a solution could be found.
Who were these people? Not all, it seemed, were victims of the civil war in Syria. Many came from Iraq and Afghanistan. These, said experts in Europe, were ‘economic migrants’, with no right of asylum. Some could even be terrorists, using the humanitarian route into a society they had sworn to destroy. Most Greeks, however, felt there was only one decent response: to take them in. Whether their future was wrecked instantly by a bomb or slowly by a failed society, despair was despair. Distinction between grades and speeds of personal disaster seemed callous, typical of observers seated in comfort many hundreds of miles away.”
It turns out that there is not much difference between the underworld and the ‘legitimate’ political arena. George Orwell’s words are apt: “The rule of naked force obtains almost everywhere . . . Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion.”
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Blood & Gold by Leo Kanaris | Dedalus Ltd, Cambridge, UK | January 2017 £9.90 336pp PB | ISBN: 978 1 910213 10 0 | e-book: 978 1 910213 57 5