Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

dimitriosOne of the books I read during the last few weeks of 2015 was The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler which was originally published in 1939. It was the third or fourth time I had read this masterpiece, and because it was about a decade since my previous reading I noticed some interesting features in the novel. There is a blurb on the front cover ‘The source on which we all draw” by John le Carre, and it appeared to me that many of the techniques used by Ambler have been taken up by so many crime writers especially the Swedish school.

The Mask of Dimitrios is the story of how an English crime novelist Charles Latimer becomes fascinated, almost obsessed, by the story of  master criminal Dimitrios, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer retraces Dimitrios’s steps across Europe hoping to gain material for a new book. The simplicity of this plot device is quite brilliant as it allows the author to include passages about the history of the various locations.

Unable to destroy the Turkish army, the Greeks turned with frantic savagery to the business of destroying the Turkish population in the path of their flight……………….Assisted by the few half-crazed Anatolian peasants who had survived, they took their revenge on the Greeks they were able to overtake……….

But the main Greek army had escaped by sea…… the Turks swept on. On the ninth of September 1922, they occupied Smyrna.

For a fortnight, refugees from the oncoming Turks had been pouring into the city to swell the already large Greek and Armenian populations. They had thought that the Greek army would turn and defend Smyrna. But the Greek army had fled. Now they were caught in a trap. The holocaust began.

We have to remember that this was published in 1939. The destruction of Smyrna, a multicultural community, was a sad prediction of what was to happen to so many communities in Europe between 1939-1945, and what is happening to many in the Middle East today. 

The assassination of politicians arranged by corrupt banks, spies, murders and the activities of criminal drug distributing organisations are contained in a narrative that packs more events and details in a mere 226 pages than many of today’s heavy 600 page doorstops. The very detailed slow paced descriptions of how master spy Grodek, and Dimitrios, while working for Italy entrap a Yugoslav civil servant into getting hold of top secret information, and the activities of Dimitrios’s drug gang in Paris, are almost a blueprint for this detailed approach in later novels for example those by le Carre and Stieg Larsson. 

Any discussion of this novel without mentioning the enigmatic loquacious Mr Peters would be unacceptable. He is one of the great characters of spy/crime fiction, and when a movie of the book was made his part was taken by the portly Sydney Greenstreet. Greenstreet had starred in The Maltese Falcon, as the villainous Gutman, and was an fine choice. He had been accompanied in that movie by Peter Lorre, they made an excellent combination. But someone thought he should play opposite Greenstreet in The Mask of Dimitrios, and so Charles Lambert was changed into Cornelius Leyden to explain Lorre’s central European accent. I thought Peter Lorre was miscast as he was too good a villain to play the hero. But Sydney Greenstreet was the quintessential Mr Peters…..

The fat man spread out large, soft hands on one of which twinkled a rather grubby diamond ring. ‘I am a citizen of the world,’ he said. “To me, all countries, all languages are beautiful. If only men could live as brothers, without hatred, seeing only the beautiful things. But no! There are always Communists, etcetera. It is, no doubt the Great One’s will.”

There is a brooding almosphere of corrupt evil that permeates the narrative, because we are as it states in the introduction in a Europe that is a jungle and its rules set by the Stock Exchange Year Book and Mein Kampf.

Ambler succeeds brilliantly in informing a population that had been fed a diet of cosy country house murders, and village green cricket matches, about the harsh realities of life across the Channel. 

Almost as Ambler finished the book the Nazis marched into Prague in the spring of 1939.     

51MLwvIJgBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_Red Sparrow won the 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel, and this modern spy novel is an exciting read and worthy prize winner. I don’t think it quite compares to the  best work of John Le Carre, Charles McCarry or Len Deighton, but it is a very good debut novel. 

I mentioned Epigraphs when posting about Colin Dexter’s The Secret of Annexe 3, well Red Sparrow is all about Experience, Espionage and Epicure. 

Experience: author Jason Matthews has 33 years experience as an officer in the CIA’s Operations Directorate, now the National Clandestine Service.

Espionage: Red Sparrow is packed full of spy tradecraft, as CIA operative Nathaniel ‘Nate’ Nash is targeted by the beautiful Dominika Egorova, a trainee of the Sparrow School of seduction. Dominika  is the niece of Vanya Egorov, Deputy Director of the Russian Federation’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, the Foreign Intelligence Service. Nate is running a CIA mole MARBLE who is embedded deep inside the SVR, and while Dominika is attempting to recruit Nate, Nate is also trying to recruit her because of her relationship with Egorov.

Like most spy stories there are lots of complexities, and love affairs, betrayals but the characters are dealt with in a mature fashion, and the writing is of a quality that makes the 500 plus pages go smoothly. Matthews makes you care about what happens to these people. In Red Sparrow there is more thinking, and eating than shooting.

Epicure [a person who appreciates fine food and drink]: One feature I loved about the book is that every chapter ends with a recipe that refers to a meal eaten by the characters during the preceding action. These vary from simple Beet Soup to Caviar Torte to Shrimp Yiouvetsi as the action moves from Moscow to Helsinki, Washington, Rome, Athens and a climax at the Narva River. 

A spy thriller with believable characters and tense situations, blended with a tempting cookbook; an original concept, and a very good read. 

The Germans would have found him shuldhaft, culpable, and given him three years. The Americans would have pegged the poor sap a victim of sexpionage and sentenced him to eight years. In Russia the predatel, the traitor, would have been liquidated. French investigators handed down a stern finding of negligent. Delon was transferred home quickly-out of reach-consigened to duties without access to classified documents for eighteen months. 

A beautiful woman, quoi faire? What could you do?      

The new Harry Hole

Posted: October 24, 2013 in Greece, Miss Marple, Scotland

51OKxEMZRZL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_Jo Nesbo created one of the best Scandinavian crime thriller series with his Harry Hole books. In my opinion the series had begun to slip very slightly in The Leopard and Phantom from the incredibly high standards set in the Oslo Trilogy [The Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil’s Star] The Redeemer, and The Snowman.

 I am 184 pages into Police, the latest in the series, and Jo Nesbo seems back to his tricky confusing best. The reader gets the trademark features of Nesbo’s best books, great characters, puzzling plot twists, corruption at the top, and a brutal serial killer defying the police. And as usual Don Bartlett translates it into easily readable English. Despite the size and weight of my hardback copy I won’t put this one down.

Updating the Harry Hole series [book two is yet to be translated into English]
 The Cockroaches

51pC8LH9yPL._SL500_AA300_This is a fine novel that puts the current problems of Greece in perspective. 

1940-Costa Zannis is a senior police official in Salonika. He deals with special political cases

Was the Belgian consul being blackmailed by a prostitute? Call Zannis.

Had the son of an Athenian politician taken a diamond ring from a jeweller and refused to pay for it? Call Zannis.

With Mussolini’s troops in Albania about to invade and German agents all around, Zannis still manages to set up an escape route for Jews fleeing from the Nazis. He also embarks on a passionate but dangerous love affair with the beautiful Demetria. Zannis a consummate wheeler dealer arranges safe passage for his both his family and that of his valued work colleague, Gabi Saltiel, a Sephardic Jew from the large community in Salonika. In between all this Zannis mixes with British spies, Turkish officials, pickofthemonth2012Yugoslav policemen, and French resistance making dangerous trips to Paris and Belgrade. I was amazed that Furst squeezes so much action, characterisation, back stories, and easily digestible history into a mere 279 pages. We are even taken to Berlin as we follow the Gruens in a long  journey across Europe as they try to escape from the Nazis. He reminds us that Salonika was one of those cosmopolitan cities in the Ottoman Empire that along with Smyrna, and Beirut  have suffered the devastating results of war and a total change in character. 

But Zannis and Demetria even in a city about to be occupied, and suffer a catastrophe, were able to dine like the last meal of a condemned man. 

They ate spiced whipped feta, they ate calamari stuffed with cheese, they ate grilled octopus and grilled aubergine and mussels with rice pilaf and creamy thick yogurt with honey.

It all adds to the atmosphere of a very fine spy thriller.

The narrrative of Spies of the Balkans with all its tension does have a nice twist at the very end that can almost, but not quite, make you forget the terrible fate that awaited Salonika.

‘ More luck- especially for your Salonika Jews. Because our Jews, in Zagreb, are right at the top of the Ustashi list. They’d like to get rid of the Serbs, and the Croat politicians who oppose them, but they really have it in for the Jews. If the Utashi ever took control of the city, well…………..’     

Spies of the Balkans was my Pick of the Month for December.

Next week 9 January BBC are televising another Alan Furst wartime novel Spies of Warsaw.  

Ashes is a good read, but perhaps it should be read at a time when the reader is feeling optimistic about the world and their life.  

It is a very dark and depressing book, and for me it was  a difficult read as I did not realise how badly the harsh story it would affect me. Ashes is about an arson attack on a house in which, an old man, a young woman and her 3-year old daughter are killed, and a once famous actress Sonia Varika is badly burned and left in a coma. 

The story is told from three perspectives by the victim Sonia [a back story in italics], by Police Colonel Chronis Haldikis, Head of Internal Affairs, and by elderly lawyer Simeon Piertovanis. Despite the fact that the evidence shows that the fire was arson Haldikis is told by his superiors to list it as an accident, because powerful people want it hushed up. Among the reasons for not investigating is that Greece must appear to be a modern successful country with the approaching 2004 Olympic games. Chronis and Simeon had both been Sonia’s lovers in the past, and Chronis recruits the lawyer to a small team to find out who perpetrated the crime and why. 

As the story proceeds we learn that Sonia and Simeon’s lives have been ravaged by alcohol, and that Chronis requires regular topping up with cocaine to function. This is a tale of ruined people, in a country ruined by greed and corruption; sections of  a politically motivated police force, and gangs of anabolic steroid enhanced fascists are working with seedy property developers to make the country a living hell. The book was published in Greece in 2007 just before the wheels fell off the economy, something exacerbated by the level of political corruption. 

“Junta-socialist” was the least offensive nickname for Attica’s Police Chief, a commander ho, after gorging on half a suckling-pig washed down with ten litres of beer, would often argue that the only politicians who had genuinely cared about the country were Andreas Papandreou, the founder of the socialist P.A.S.O.K.  party, and George Papadopoulos, one of the three colonels who engineered the ’67 coup. 

I think that politicians are the people who should read crime fiction books like Ashes, even if they might find it uncomfortable reading recognizing themselves in the narratives or even learning that their policies are the cause rather than the cure for nation’s problems.

………….listened to the 11.00 on the car radio and tried really hard to persuade myself that the fatty, who in a couple of months would become prime minister, was our saviour and would deliver us from financial ruin and corruption.

One lesson that could be learned from reading Ashes is not to interfere in other people’s wars, as you might eventually get the blame when things go wrong.

“Well, you know whose fault it is?” ‘How would I know I am only a civil servant.”

“The ‘Great Powers’. If they hadn’t interfered back then, everything would be alright today.”

“Which ‘back then’ are you talking about?”

“The Battle of Navarino. Wasn’t that when it all started?”

[The Battle of Navarino 1827:when the British, French and Russian fleets destroyed the Egyptian and Turkish fleets during the Greek War of Independence]

A clever book and even if Chronis Halkidis doesn’t do things by the book, an understatement, he is an interesting protagonist coping as best he can in a very damaged society. I shall look out for the next in the series because it will be fascinating to see how Chronis copes with the economic collapse of his country.