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Written by Sergios Gakas — Perhaps the ongoing crisis in Greece should not have come as a surprise. At least not to those crime fiction aficionados who have come across Petros Markaris and Sergios Gakas. Both authors not only write cracking crime stories, but have provided for some years now a prescient view of Greek society on the brink of economic and social breakdown. Gakas is the more noir of the two, but both are still relatively unknown to English speakers. Hopefully that is set to change soon with more excellent translations on the way.

In the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, a crumbling old house in an upmarket district of Athens is burnt to the ground.  Three of its four occupants are killed, while the remaining victim, the once famous actress Sonia Varika, lies in hospital in a coma. Accident or arson? And, if it was arson, which one of the odd assortment of housemates was the intended victim?

Police Colonel Chronis Halkidis and landlord and part-time lawyer Simeon Piertzovanis both knew and loved Sonia. This beautiful and passionate woman had steadily descended into addiction and chaos, living mainly in her own memories – and in the memories of the men who had known her. Both men are prey to their own demons, and desperation is only a short drink or a snort of cocaine away.

Although they barely trust each other, they have to learn to work together to discover who wanted Sonia out of the way, and why. Hampered by their own lack of trust in the police and public services, coming face-to-face with corruption in all areas of public life, the two men encounter a tangled web of lies at every turn. Finally, with the help of several unconventional and loyal assistants, they are forced to take the law into their own hands.

What makes this novel especially intriguing is that it is by turns funny and pessimistic, a lyrical love story and a tale of conspiracy and mayhem. Resolution and redemption are always relative and seldom fully satisfactory. You cannot judge crime novels like these by Anglo-Saxon standards and it refuses to conform to genre expectations. Yet it fully delivers in terms of plot, sharp and witty dialogue, and original, rounded characters. The two main protagonists are deeply flawed, even damaged, yet the author’s compassion for their weaknesses is ever present.

It’s the secondary characters, particularly the two strong women helping the investigation along, who are most memorable and loveable. Fotini, Halkidis’ smart secretary, is a key member of the investigative team, while student Rania is initially merely Simeon’s one-night stand, but later proves that she is much more than a spoilt little rich girl and emerges fiercely protective of the older man.

Fantastic, unusual and very dark crime thriller, with an ending that will bring you close to tears.

MacLehose Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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