A detective series gives a shrewd take on Greece.
Who needs a plane ticket when books can take us wherever we want to go? The first of a Metro series looks at how Anne Zouroudi’s detective novels offer a shrewd and atmospheric take on Greece.
Even putting aside the NZ$500 billion debt burden and the refugee crisis, it’s still not all cicadas singing in the ferny branches of tamarisk trees in Greece — not all sweet pastries with walnuts (kataifi) and old men playing backgammon (tavli) in cafes while knock-kneed donkeys (gaidouria) bow their heads outside white-washed chapels overlooking seas of turquoise, lapis lazuli, sapphire, ultramarine and/or cobalt.
The ancient country, with its archipelago of 3000 islands, is as dark as it’s sunny, according to Anne Zouroudi. The English author sets eight detective novels there, showcasing the seven deadly sins as well as the instinctual rather than the CSI abilities of crime-solving Hermes Diaktoros.
Yes, Zouroudi’s protagonist is the son of
Zeus. He walks among mortals, in some fairly naff outfits, it has to be said: Italian suits of grey mohair shot with lavender hints teamed with pastel-coloured polo shirts belted into the pants. And he always wears white sneakers, winged-sandal substitutes. He arrives, ex machina, invariably in some stultifying backwater where a man can be a legend “for growing a giant cucumber … or surviving a fall from a rooftop”, just as violence has been perpetrated. Under a flaming-red sky he comes across, for example, a beekeeper — giving off “musky sweat strong as a billy goat’s” — dead, bloody, and broken among the mountain shrubs.
The contrivance may sound too cute in parts. But while Zouroudi is not hard-boiled, neither is she cosy, partly because Hermes is way more sulphurous and avenging than Hercules Poirot: he secretes a scorpion in an old lady’s handbag in The Messenger of Athens (lust/fishing/wife thrown over cliff). In The Taint of Midas (greed/ real estate/beekeeper — refer above) he orchestrates an immolation. Even when Zouroudi is serving up charming details, as she often does, there’s inevitably a kicker. In The Bull of Mithros (sloth/antiquities/layabout upended down a well) a banker serves his clients with an owl on his shoulder, until it dies and he stuffs it.
Zouroudi is an elegant plotter, and sub-plotter. In a post-modern moment in The Gifts of Poseidon (multiple sins/tuna/filicide) and in a discussion about detection fiction Hermes notes: “You can never be sure until you get to the very end.” Characters are also highly plausible: a portrait of envy and sisterly rivalry — over a French medic blinded by acid at the chapel of St Paraskevi — in The Doctor of Thessaly is both acute and heart-breaking.
The gruesomeness of Hellenic patriarchy is one of Zouroudi’s leitmotifs, perhaps unsurprisingly. She appeared in the 2014 British television programme I Married the Waiter: Love in the Sun. Zouroudi met her ex-husband on the island of Symi: “After the marriage, George did change,” she confessed. In The Doctor of Thessaly Hermes gives advice to the lonely Evangelia: “Men aren’t such a desirable species, when you look at it. They might start out so, but marriage has a strange effect on them. It makes them fat, and bald, and short-tempered. They belch and snore and eye up pretty girls. You’re better off without, believe me. Too many women trade their freedom for bad bargains.”
Other leitmotifs: policemen are often lazy, and some predatory; English tourists wouldn’t recognise a decent olive to save themselves; the Greek Orthodox Church is somewhat risible. In The Feast of Artemis (gluttony/olives/cyanide) Hermes has fun at the expense of St Fanourios the Revealer, patron saint of lost things: for a successful intercession, a petitioner must make a cake for the soul of the saint’s mother.
In her atmospheric novels Zouroudi has much to say about those living on the margins, although she is rarely political — an Eat the Rich T-shirt puts in an appearance in 2013. Two years later in the non-fictional world, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ignited Europe with Marxism and anti-austerity fury. But while the Homer-quoting Hermes dispenses kindness to those who deserve it, and scorpions to those who don’t, he’s largely philosophical: “Look now how mortals blame the gods, for they say that evils come from us, but in fact they themselves have woes beyond their share because of their own follies.”
The Messenger of Athens (2007), The Taint of Midas (2008), The Doctor of Thessaly (2009), The Lady of Sorrows (2010), The Whispers of Nemesis (2011), The Bull of Mithros (2012), The Feast of Artemis (2013) and The Gifts of Poseidon (2016) are available from Auckland Libraries.