Two Greek crime novels with a hitman hero.
The hitman hero of two Greek crime novels is a bit of a pillock, but the descriptions of a crisis-rocked capital are genuinely elegiac.
As the titles of Pol Koutsakis’s two crime novels featuring Stratos Gazis suggest, melancholy is the order of the day. The setting for Athenian Blues and Baby Blue is dystopian Athens, 2010 and 2015 respectively.
ATMs are broken, shops are shuttered, the grilles of manhole covers have been nicked for their copper, mail piles high in abandoned apartment blocks, and icon painters are among those who are homeless and living on Filopappou Hill (aka the Hill of the Muses), with its glorious view of the Acropolis and the jagged skyline. “Times are tough, the country is going bankrupt, everybody wants to flee abroad,” an incestuous, money-grubbing sociopath explains to Gazis as he prepares to kill him in Athenian Blues.
Gazis is six feet tall, 220 pounds, “all muscle”, a man of few words. He’s a hitman, whose generous fees haven’t been affected by his country’s economic crisis. He operates with a confused moral code, seeing himself as a social worker, but one who is properly paid. He thinks hard before taking on a client: there has to be a good reason for liquidation, and the client must be “sincere”. Once the job is done, Gazis feels he has helped his client “take a tiny step towards the light”. He can’t, he reckons, “defeat the seven-headed Hydra, but I can frustrate it by chopping off its heads”.
In Athenian Blues, for exam- ple, one potential client Gazis considers is an actor, married to — she says — a dangerous thug, who also happens to be a principled attorney who defends illegal immigrants against state brutality, and civil servants against salary cuts and austerity measures. Gazis finds the actor hard to resist — she’s a full-blown noir convention, a femme fatale: husky voice, 75 per cent of men in Greece have voted her the most desirable woman in the country, says things like “Hot in here, isn’t it?”, etc. In Baby Blue, his client is a homeless blind teenager, a gifted magician, whose kindly journalist protector has been murdered, perhaps for pederasty. The magician, nevertheless, wants revenge. It’s a minefield.
The novels have their irritations, not least because Koutsakis shovels on the details — some gratuitous — as he strains to render his protagonist miserable and hard-boiled, and other characters quirky. Gazis spends a deal of time moping about. He likes jazz and blues. He watches film noir, it being the only kind of art “that bears any relation to real life”. He quotes lines from many movies, albeit two good ones, from the 1949 gangster classic White Heat: when the ruthless gang leader Cody Jarrett (played by James Cagney) is asked: “You wouldn’t kill me in cold blood, would you?” he replies, “No, I’ll let you warm up a little.”
The quirk quotient is partly filled by Gazis’s best friend, the ace Athenian police detective Costas Dragas, who reads Scandi noir (oh dear) and is a trainspotter, telling Gazis, for example, that the only species apart from humans that kiss with tongues is the white-fronted Amazon parrot, but as soon as the male makes contact with the female’s tongue, he vomits.
Gazis also comes off as a bit of a pillock. “You don’t need to know the name on my passport and ID card. For your own good,” he addresses the reader, while clarifying that Stratos Gazis is in fact an alias. Explain- ing his choice of weapon — the heavy Sig Sauer P226.40 — he appears to simultaneously crib from the manufacturer’s promotional material, and patronise: “When you’re not an expert marksman and your hands are too big for most firearms, you need the best gun to ensure the job will get done, even if you don’t hit the bullseye.” And while confidence can be an attractive quality, it can trip into unattractive cocksuredness: “When you are the best, you can afford to be a maverick,” he says in Baby Blue.
It will come as no surprise that Gazis’s relationship with the love of his life, Maria, is not going well, and that one of his best friends, the expensive call girl Teri — who is enthusiastically anti-austerity (“EU scumbags”), volunteers at a centre for Syrian and Pakistani child refugees and has transitioned — berates him for his treatment of Maria, and for being a “heartless, hypocritical, sexist pig”.
But it’s when Koutsakis describes Athens that the books are genuinely atmospheric and elegiac. The city is the Balkan centre of the Kalashnikov trade, the go-to gun of gangsters. Down at the port city of Piraeus, piers are lined with African refugees in limbo as they try to reach central and northern Europe, having been fleeced by smugglers. Gazis passes graffiti that reads, “The Aegean belongs to SpongeBob”. He cuts across Omonia Square (“Dangerous, STAY AWAY”, advises TripAdvisor) in the centre of Athens, past multi-coloured used condoms, Nigerians, Georgians and Kurds variously hawking knock-off Louis Vuittons, something hallucinogenic, and contraband cigarettes. When questioning a Harvey Weinstein-like film director at the Hilton, Gazis stands at the window, gazing at the magnificent Parthenon, the construction of which began in 447 BC, when the Athenian Empire was at the peak of its power.
“This was not my city,” Gazis thinks in Baby Blue. “It was something else, something sick trying to look, sound and smell like Athens. But it was failing and it knew it, just like the old juggler I used to see … in the middle of the square. He would lose track of one ball after another but always bent down, picked them up and kept going. Because there was nothing else he could do.”
Athenian Blues (English translation, 2017) and Baby Blue (2018) are published by Bitter Lemon Press, $22.99.