Outsider-insider weaves past and present into pacy thrillers
Paul Johnston made his name as a writer with a series of five futuristic novels set in Scotland, but his three most recent books are set in Greece. The trilogy features Alex Mavros, a half-Greek, half-Scottish private investigator who is driven by unresolved issues from his family’s past. That past, inextricably bound up with the troubled recent history of Greece, forms a dark backdrop to pacy, ingeniously plotted and compulsively readable thrillers. The disappearance of an American tourist takes Mavros to the isle of Trigono in «A Deeper Shade of Blue,» where present-day horrors match tragic events in the Second World War. In «The Last Red Death,» Mavros helps a woman pursue her father’s killer and is caught up in the tentacles of terrorism and the bloody events that it sprang from. While tracking down a missing teenager in «The Golden Silence,» he confronts evil remnants of the military dictatorship. A wry take Johnston, who has lived in Greece, on and off, for many years, knows the country and its people intimately. Despite the grim subject matter of his thrillers, that close acquaintance also makes for a wryly humorous insider’s-outsider’s take. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his work, his approach and life and death. History and its aftereffects play a big part in the Alex Mavros series. What sort of response have you had from readers to that aspect of the books? The past and the present are seamlessly woven together, particularly in a small country like Greece that has so much history. For me, this is brought home most powerfully by the landscape, where ancient, Byzantine, Ottoman, post-independence and modern buildings coexist in a harshly beautiful setting. After genes and ideology, I think landscape (including cityscape) is the most significant influence on characters (and, therefore, plots). For example, the father and son in «Golden» are first seen fishing in the isolated, cold, mountain-surrounded lake at Kastoria – I tried to link their viciousness to this, especially the son’s. Critics and readers in general have expressed approval of the weave of past and present. British readers tend to be very ignorant about the recent past of Greece (as I was myself for many years), and have appreciated being informed. Greek readers usually have inherited a family «party» position (or have reacted against same), and tend to be unaware or unwilling to accept the other side of the argument. The important thing in a novel like «Red,» with its many historical scenes, is to be as accurate as possible. I did a lot of research and that has been appreciated. An attempt at objectivity (in as much as that is possible) helps too. You have remarked that Greeks are not yet ready to confront the troubled legacy of the civil war. Isn’t there some evidence that the younger generation is less swayed by the divisions of the past? The younger generation of Greeks is probably less troubled by the past, but that is as much a result of less interest in politics (the inevitable result of capitalism), and of ignorance. Kids at school are still taught bugger all about the Civil War and the American-backed regimes that ran the country till 1974 (apart from Giorgos Papandreou’s brief premiership in the ’60s). I feel that everything should now be out in the open, and all the heroic stuff that’s wheeled out every March 25 and October 28 is seriously unhelpful, not to say politically and socially immature. (The Brits are equally foolish about WWII – one of the things I most wanted to do in «Red» was to explode the myth of brave and heroic British deeds in Greece in the war – of course, there were some, but there were also plenty of disasters and cockups.) Your female characters tend to be very aggressive. At least part of this derives from my tendency to treat characters in a paradigmatic way as well as individualizing them – thus, for example, Stamatina in «Red» is representative of all the left-thinking women who suffered in the ’40s and ’50s. Rena in «Blue» is representative of all the village women who suffer under the power of their various menfolk. Taking on macho system Rea in «Golden» is representative of Greek women who have taken on the macho system according to its own rules (and, of course, has been corrupted by it, as have the men). I was taken to task in the TLS for doing this (i.e. not concentrating on individual character traits enough), but I believe it’s a valid way of critiquing society and its members – all people’s characters are at least partially formed by the power systems that structure society (what Marxists and postmodernists call ideology). Thus, the women in my books often play more complex roles than the men – at least the latter have a relatively simple system of values (even the terrorist Iraklis), while the women have to play both the roles allotted them by society and those their emotions draw them to. Often my women revolt against the former: Stamatina becomes a killer, Rea a gang boss, and Rena a secret lesbian (and possibly murderess). But I have also tried to show women more positively: Veta in «Red» seems to be a typical right-wing politico at the start, but at the end is shown to be caring and brave. Jenny in «Golden» hides her suffering beneath the various masks of an actress. And Era retains her forgiving nature despite the agony and loss she has suffered. So, too, Mavros’s mother, admittedly not a Greek, is not an aggressive woman. My feeling is that politics/ideologies and the conditions of modern life define character at least as much as genes. As, in the main, women live more by their emotions than men. They have to make more difficult choices and compromises. The defense rests… What kind of challenges does setting the series in Greece and making your hero half-Greek, half-Scots present to you as a writer? This presented me with an easy way in, rather than causing hard challenges. Although I am not Greek, and have no desire to become so, I have acquired a certain dual vision over the years. This is reflected in Mavros’s semi-outsider status, which is, of course, also the classic PI’s marginal location. Can we expect to see more of Alex Mavros? There is now a trilogy of Mavros books and he’s taking a holiday for a while (though probably not on an island called Trigono…) I’ve just written a contemporary revenge thriller set in London. I like changing locations, characters, style – the Mavros series is very different from my quintet of Edinburgh books. Change equals challenge, both for author and reader. Allagi (or «change») pace Andreas, is the future. Life and death You deal with big issues but put them in a wrapping that has mass appeal. What made you choose this approach? I’ve always wanted my books to reach the largest possible audience. I see no reason why big issues shouldn’t be presented in popular fiction – after all, readers deal with big issues every day of their lives. I’m a big movie fan, and that medium shows how to handle life and death issues in a populist way, without necessarily dumbing down. I think publishers and booksellers consistently underestimate readers’ capacities. Speaking of life and death, my relationship with Greece and the Greeks has been changed by an «adventure» I had with my health two-and-a-half years ago. Doctors in the Polyliniki Hospital in Athens discovered a large, very aggressive and advanced tumor in and around one of my kidneys. The operation and subsequent treatment I am still receiving have been superb and show how dedicated Greek doctors and nurses are to their patients. I now feel even more involved with the country – and am even able to forgive Athenian drivers their selfish disregard for pedestrians and Greek bureaucracy its incompetence and venality, sometimes… The author Paul Johnston was born in Edinburgh in 1957 and studied classics at Oxford University. He worked in the shipping industry in London and Belgium for a number of years and came to Greece in 1987, where he took up writing seriously after moving to the island of Antiparos in 1989. He returned to Edinburgh to do further postgraduate studies in 1995 and has been a full-time author since the success of his first novel, «Body Politic,» in 1998, which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Award. «Body Politic» (published in a Greek translation by Natasa Skordou from Periplus) is the first in a quintet of futuristic novels set in Scotland and featuring the maverick investigator Quintilian Dalrymple. Johnston embarked on a new series with «A Deeper Shade of Blue,» set on the imaginary island of Trigono in the Aegean and introducing Alex Mavros, a half-Greek, half-Scots private investigator. That was followed by «The Last Red Death,» which won the 2004 Sherlock Award (and is also available in a Greek translation by Titina Sperelaki from Periplus). The third in the series, «The Golden Silence,» came out in 2004. Though the author follows a different approach in each book, certain threads run throughout the trilogy – the demons of the past that have not been laid to rest, the ties and claims of family, and the protagonist’s ongoing search for his brother Andonis. Johnston is based in Britain but spends much of his time in Greece. All his books are published in Britain by Hodder and Stoughton.