CULTURE

The mean streets of Athens in Petros Markaris’s crime novels

Petros Markaris’s three works of crime fiction have earned him critical and popular acclaim both in Greece and abroad. Part of the reason for their success is that while adhering to the conventions of the crime novel, the author also ventures further afield into the province of more overtly literary fiction. Markaris delineates and illuminates the society in which his tales are played out, a setting that is familiar in broad outline to readers anywhere, but is also absolutely and unforgettably Athenian. Unalloyed pleasure But these are, above all, good stories, ripping yarns, if you like. For crime aficionados who like nothing better after a long hard day than to jump into bed with a big, fat, juicy murder, Markaris’s crime novels are unalloyed pleasure, with intricate plots that satisfyingly unravel their secrets in well-timed surprises until the very last page. The villains are intriguingly varied and their motives spring as much from the nature of the society they inhabit as from their own characters. But the soul of the books, and the source of much of the rich vein of humor that runs counter to events both grim and mundane, is their hero and narrator – homicide squad chief Costas Haritos, a Greek incarnation of the hard-boiled cop. Haritos, with his penchant for reading dictionaries and his cynical take on contemporary Athens and the complex, often corrupt interplay of the State, police, media, celebrities and everyday people, is Markaris’s special contribution to the genre. Though chief of his department, Haritos still has to jostle for position among the police hierarchy; he sits firmly on top of his subordinates but is wary of his superiors, like other police procedural heroes: Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus come to mind from the British canon. He shares their modest backgrounds, a willingness to bend the rules to catch their prey, confidence in their own instinct, nose for a crime, and a somewhat jaundiced view of a world in which their job is to deal with the darkest side of human nature. Yet on the face of it, Haritos is an unlikely hero for a Greek novel. He got his training in the days of the junta, a past that would once have put him beyond the pale as a hero – at least for much of the local readership. But this only makes him a more believable policeman. No angel This cop is no angel. He voices the thoughtless racism that tainted much of Greek society in the 1990s, when the first book is set. His attitude to women is prehistoric – or so it seems; he’s part of a marriage of the type for which divorce was surely invented, where a couple drag out their lives together in an endless series of minor skirmishes. Haritos seemingly reserves his true affection for the daughter who will be the first in the family to get a tertiary education, while resenting the young man who has found a place in her affections. But things are not quite what they seem, and even Haritos and Adriani’s stereotypically arid marriage is a living thing – able to grow and develop in response to events, though the petty tensions between them give rise to much of the humor in the series. Absolutely Athenian Markaris isn’t the first crime writer to make his city a protagonist: George Pelecanos does it with Washington, and Ian Rankin with Edinburgh, to name two examples from the genre. What he offers is Athens as it really is, where it gets so hot and muggy that, as Haritos describes, «our clothes stick to us like postage stamps,» where he gasps for breath in his clapped-out Mirafirori car, opening the window to let in some air and promptly slamming it shut again to keep out the smog, and his neighborhood becomes unrecognizable for the mountains of garbage. For Athenian readers, naturally, there is the thrill of recognition. Whether Haritos is plotting a cross-city trek using every form of public transport available – from the shiny bright new metro (which is a bit too European for the hero’s taste) to the trolley bus and the old electric railway, or navigating from police headquarters to the outer suburbs by car – Markaris can quote chapter and verse. He seems to know every one-way street, traffic obstruction, every slow intersection and every part of town where it’s almost impossible to find a parking space. For non-Athenian readers, the details may be new, but the sense is still there of the city as a living organism and an active part of the story. In interviews, Markaris has voiced a desire to give an account of how Greek society developed after the fall of the military dictatorship – to measure it against the hopes and dreams of those who fought to restore democracy. And his books chronicle that social evolution, much of it fueled by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. In the first book, set in the 1990s, migrants are still at the bottom of the pile. Haritos sees the death of two Kurds as a nuisance, rather than a crime worth solving; by the third book, they are legally employed building the Olympic Village, and Athens has developed commensurately alongside them. There are rich pickings for entrepreneurs untroubled by scruples, and the chance of a lifetime to make a living for the once despised incomers. The big sharks, some of whom once gloriously resisted the dictatorship, are now movers and shakers in the world of business. Their closeness to members of the government due to their origins on the same side of the ideological fence, gives them access to power and privileged treatment when contracts are assigned – a very real process, responsible for the much-lamented corruption that pervades public and business life in contemporary Greece, and Markaris has his characters act out that entanglement. Social change Whether his characters have vaulted from the barricades to the boardroom or are smaller sharks seeking lesser prey – former police officers now working as nightclub security guards and creaming off juicy payments from eager journalists wanting hot tips – Markaris peoples his work with absolutely contemporary representatives of Athenian life. Social change, or the lack of it, is reflected in his characters. Haritos, for all his growing awareness, can be relied upon to make crass statements about people of other races; Adriani is obsessed with getting her talented daughter to turn aside from her doctorate and learn how to make a tray of stuffed vegetables properly. But Haritos’s outdated ideas are challenged by his daughter’s achievements and ambitions and by his colleague Koula, secretary to Haritos’s superior Gikas. Koula starts out looking like a decorative airhead with little ambition beyond a desire to get married but develops into a capable police officer. The media The dominant role of the media is reflected in these books. Haritos has a particular detestation of journalists – especially of those who work in the electronic media – but his job, and the preferred modus operandi of Gikas, necessitate almost daily contact with them. In the first book, the journalists are also the victims of some of the murders he investigates, and he has a love-hate relationship with the leader of the pack, the hard-hitting Sotiropoulos – which is a continuing thread in the series, illuminating the sometimes shady connection between the police and the media, but also between society in general and the media. Haritos’s wife Adriani sits glued to the box for much of the first book, remote control in hand, while he prefers to read a dictionary, but the journalists are often ahead of the police in their investigations, and Haritos frequently has to watch the night’s news bulletin if he wants to know what’s going on. As in real life, the media in these books often precipitate events, and the authorities make decisions and announcements with the media in mind. Haritos’s days as a trainee in the junta have yielded a friendship of sorts with a more typical Greek hero – Zisis. A lifelong left-wing militant, unbowed by imprisonment and torture and mindful of the small kindnesses shown him by the young Haritos, he not only provides another perspective but his simple retired lifestyle and continuing espousal of his beliefs is in sharp contrast to former fellow resisters who have since made themselves over into pillars of the establishment – sometimes, as in the third novel – by exploiting the very people they once fought beside and for. Zisis is a reminder of where contemporary Greek society might have gone but hasn’t. Markaris gives us the whole picture, as seen by Haritos. This is a modified version of a paper presented in Rhodes during a meeting held by The European Translation Center (EKEMEL) and the National Book Center (EKEBI) on July 4-7 to introduce European critics and journalists to contemporary Greek fiction.