Almost exactly fifteen months ago, I reviewed Pol Koutsakis’s first thriller in the Stratos Gazis series, Athenian Blue. I said at the time that I couldn’t wait for the next one, but wait I had to … and it has been worth it. Gazis is back, though not on quite the same track as last time. A few quick details for those of you who haven’t met the man before: Gazis is not a cop, he is a hit-man … but with a difference. His ‘terms and conditions’ state that he only takes out those he genuinely believes are truly evil, and he reserves the right to drop a case at any time if he decides the ‘hit’ doesn’t deserve it: tough luck on his clients!
‘… [they] expect their instructions to be followed … no questions asked. But not by me. When you’re the best, you can afford to be a maverick.’
He puts his success down to meticulous planning at every stage, and given the shambles of the Greek economic and political crisis of the past few years, that would seem a wise move; for the backdrop to these stories is the crumbling, poverty-burdened, crime-ridden streets of Athens: ‘… pollution, the stench of uncollected refuse … graffiti, the filth … abandoned buildings … shuttered up businesses, padlocks on cafés and bookshops …’. Not much of a PR pitch for Alexis Tsipras’s efforts or those of the Greek Tourist Board, but then, the crisis continues and as one of the city’s underworld bosses remarks, Greeks shouldn’t have ideas above their station: ‘… Athens … is a much smaller city than it thinks it is. This is especially true of the underworld. The same old people going around banging their heads against each other, working for different bosses.’ And presumably evading the best efforts of the city’s police to clear them out!
But that, of course, doesn’t mean that every story is the same … and, indeed, this time, Gazis does not have a classic ‘hit’ to track down and kill, someone who is making life difficult for a rich client. His client is a 14-year old girl, Emma, a brilliant street magician with baby-blue eyes; and he’s introduced to her by one of his underworld ‘sources’, who has taken her under his wing. Her father was murdered some years earlier, in a most sadistic way. By whom? Well, that’s Gazis’ job to find out and what he does with the killer or killers when he tracks them down remains to be seen. Which is perhaps not the most apt phrase, as the girl in question is blind.
The pace quickens as her ‘carer’, Angelino, is violently attacked and Gazis’ best friend, Drag, who is a cop and the best in Athens, reveals that a serial murderer of paedophiles he’s investigating is using the same modus operandi as whoever murdered Emma’s father. So, is this a copycat killing? Or was her father the first of a line? You may think, Oh no, not another sex-abuse case, but there are enough twists, turns, blind alleys and red herrings in this story to satisfy the most jaded palate, as Gazis finds his intimate knowledge of the Athens crime scene is no help at all, the more so as he is increasingly distracted by his own personal dilemma: what to do about the fact the love of his life, Maria, is pregnant. Is it his? And if it is, is he fit to be a father?
‘Perhaps the time had come for me … to quit … for Maria and the baby … It was just that I had no idea how to do it. There was so much violence inside me that I really didn’t know if I could learn how.’
Pol Koutsakis crafts this story with the skill you would expect of a playwright and an American film noir fan, and it’s admirably translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife. I trust there will be more to come …
Reviewed by Max Easterman
Written by Pol Koutsakis
Translated from the Greek by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
Published by Bitter Lemon Press (2018)
Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.
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