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.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — FRANCES WALSH

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.

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