A mystery series set in the Greek islands and featuring a detective named Hermes (who is, indeed, that Hermes — wearing tennis shoes instead of winged sandals) should be the sunniest reading imaginable. And Anne Zouroudi’s novels are sunny. They contain loving descriptions of Greek food and wine, of azure seas and bone-white temples. But they are also slyly disturbing and occasionally brutal. The Messenger of Athens, for example, opens with the corpse of a young woman dangling from a rescue helicopter, and in Zouroudi’s latest novel, The Taint of Midas, an old farmer on a bicycle is hit by a car and left to die in the undergrowth, “his eyes staring blindly at the brilliant sun.” When the police arrive, they find Hermes Diaktoros sitting by the dead man’s side, crying. He and Gabrilis, we soon learn, were old friends — but the farmer also had enemies; he was the sole guardian of the ruined Temple of Apollo, a site coveted by the island’s ruthless tourism developer, Aris Paliakis.
“In this square mile the battle for cash from foreign wallets was fought with many weapons,” Paliakis observes from his tourist-fleecing taverna, “oil-painted views and plastic donkeys, books of traditional recipes and icons made in China.” Zouroudi describes Greece’s degraded tourist economy and its political corruption with merciless acuity, but her prevailing tone is more elegiac than polemical. In wistful asides she lyrically evokes a vanishing Greek landscape that Hermes too mourns, even as he gets on with solving the mystery of Gabrilis’s death. “Where he used to take the country lane leading inland from the coast, where a dilapidated sign had carried the name of a single village, everything was changed,” he laments when forced to navigate the “man-made chasm” of the highway.
With his outdated automobile, his linen suits and carefully whitened tennis shoes, Hermes seems ill equipped to confront the developer Paliakis or even Dinos, the sleazy reporter who bribes and blackmails his police contacts. Yet such villains ignore the portly man’s warnings at their peril: “…there is a legal heir,” Hermes informs Paliakis of the Temple of Apollo site, “Do not attempt to steal from him, or he will steal from you in return…he will deprive you of whatever in life it is that you most value.” Justice will be served, in other words, not solely on the law’s terms but also on Hermes’s terms, the terms laid down by the gods.
This whimsical approach allows Zouroudi, like her hero, to shuttle between the nasty here-and-now — where the honorable cop Gazis and his naive subordinate also pursue Gabrilis’s killer — and the more mercurial realm of divine retribution. The divine, of course, invariably trumps the temporal (Gazis, for example, saves not only his protégé’s career but also his soul), and the punishments delivered by Hermes are horrifyingly immediate. In her elegant denouement, Zouroudi describes them unflinchingly, with the same eye for detail that allows her to conjure up so vividly these islands and their people.
Spellbinding. And I do not use the word lightly. Anne Zouroudi’s “The Taint of Midas – A Seven Deadly Sins Mystery” overcomes her excellent plot and delightful characters with an elegance of prose that undulates and mesmerizes like a spot on sunset. Simply spellbinding!
This is an author commanding language and plot, very much like Susan Howatch in “The High Flyer.” Zouroudi spears us into characters that dwell on in our minds and trap us into their every heartbeat. She intertwines a mystical air into her protagonist, Hermes Diaktoros, who seems a Zeus or Prometheus, only benevolent, the hand of justice in his left palm. What a talent!
When Hermes Diaktoros returns from his wanderings to the Greek island of Arcadia, where he has one of many homes, he is the first to arrive at the horrible scene of Gabrilis Kaloyeros’ death. The old man was a beekeeper and an old and beloved friend of Hermes. Elderly Kaloyeros has been run over by a hit and run driver as he bicycled home with his basket full of watermelons. Kaloyeros owned the land of the Temple of Arcadia, a place of ancient ruins with a sweeping view of the blue ocean beneath. Hermes sets out to avenge his friend’s death. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Hermes Diaktoros absorbs clues without a Watson. Diaktoros has no need of a bumbling sidekick; his characterization creates the novel’s aura of mystery, light and shadow. His deductions are based on unorthodox methods and brilliant mentality.
Referred to as “the fat man” throughout the novel, Hermes draws from the townspeople and Constable Petridis and Sergeant Gazis to find the killer. Petridis and Gazis are uncommon policemen: integrity is their cornerstone. Hermes stops the murderer as he blackmails Petridis and Gazis. Underneath the seeming simplicity of murder, the Paliakis family, hated for their greed and viciousness, has set themselves up to absorb Kaloyeros’s valuable land. They plan to use the land for high end villas because the view from the Temple of Arcadia is one of great beauty, leading directly to the sea. And in their greed, they attempt to set fire to the land in order to obtain it cheaply.
As Hermes hunts his killer and ponders philosophy, we see Arcadia through his eyes. Lush, torpid with heat and hate, love and goodness, Hermes plants the seed unbiased justice – and lets it take root. The characters in this novel exceed mortality. Every character has a cause and effect on the others. Hermes largesse looms at the center of the novel, but each character forms its own centrality, as Zouroudi’s creates a plot both sinister and sublime. Like the sea, the townspeople swirl and eddy around Hermes.
This novel rocks. Anne Zouroudi remains a poet, a philosopher and a writer whose novel confronts the straight line horizon, steps over, and drives us into the bluest sky we can imagine. I felt deeply disappointed as I came to the end of the novel. I wanted more, more, more of Hermes, Arcadia, and Zouroudi! Not a crime novel as much as a lingering look at man, greed, and good versus evil within the context of a most talented writer. Absolutely stunning! It made my reading day.
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