Monday, December 5, 2011

Ashes by Sergios Gakas (MacLehose, 2011)

When a small cottage owned by an alcoholic lawyer, Simeon Piertzovanis, is burned to the ground the only survivor is Sonia Varika, a former actress. She is badly burned and is rushed to an intensive care unit. The three victims are an elderly man, an African woman and her young daughter. Colonel Halkidis of internal affairs pulls in a favour to be assigned the case. A former lover of Varika, he's determined to bring the people responsible for the arson to justice. Halkidis soon discovers that the cottage has been targeted by a right wing group for some time. Teaming up with Piertzovanis, also one of Sonia's former lovers, they start to uncover the truth. However, their investigation is quickly blocked by powerful forces both within and outside the police. Rather than retreating, the pair decide to fight fire with fire, pursuing justice and revenge with deadly consequences.

Ashes is a fine slice of Greek noir. All of the principle characters and institutions are deeply flawed. Although in charge of internal affairs, Colonel Halkidis is addicted to cocaine and is prepared bend the law in savage ways, though he does so for justice not financial gain. Piertzovanis is an alcoholic and prone to depression and melancholy. Raina is cheating on her boyfriend. Sonia is vain and a lush. Just about all the other characters are corrupt or prepared to turn a blind eye. The police, the government, the Church and businesses are all riddled with taken-for-granted corruption and cronyism. The story is well plotted, though it does become a little unconvincing in the latter pages as Halkidis' revenge spirals out of control and goes unchallenged. The story is told in the first person from three perspectives - Halkidis and Piertzovanis in alternating chapters, and Sonia whilst in a coma. This works surprisingly well, with Gakas able to maintain three distinct voices whilst revealing what each thinks of the other, as well as fleshing out their back stories. Indeed, the characterisation is strong throughout. There is a good sense of place and as well as being a fine crime story, Ashes is a searing social commentary on the Greek society and its institutions. Having read the novel it is certainly much easier to understand the events in the country over the past couple of years. I thoroughly enjoyed Ashes and if any of Gakas' other books are translated I intend to give them a go. There's an interesting interview with the author on the publisher's website.


Sarah said...

Thanks for the review Rob. I have seen reviews of this book and it sounds good. I live part time in Athens as my husband works there (although I spend most of my time in the UK). Athenians have a very poor view of the police, an opinion I have to concur with given the problems when I have had the misfortune to deal with them.

One to read when I am back in the UK full time and can look back and laugh. It sounds too close to home at the moment - I could write my own book on the trauma of Greek institutions.

Maxine Clarke said...

Excellent review, Rob, I enjoyed this book for the portrait of Greece (traumatic is right, Sarah) and the main character, though I did find some parts incredible. On the whole, though, it is a very good read I think and I look forward to the next (apparently there will be one, will be interesting to see how the author does it). The Greek social comment on the Olympic build up is also covered in Petros Makaris's Che Committed Suicide, a novel I also enjoyed very much (but had a crazy plot resolution!).