Markaris, Petros - 'Che Committed Suicide' (translated by David Connolly)
CHE COMMITTED SUICIDE is a long book which has many fascinating details and touches, with great characterisations and sense of place (Athens and environs). At the same time, it has a crazy crime plot. I find it hard to reconcile these two aspects. I definitely enjoyed it very much, though, and would agree with Andrea Camilleri's superbly laconic cover blurb: "I like Petros Markaris a lot".
Perhaps the greatest strength of this novel is the central character, Inspector Costas Haritos, who at the outset is recovering from a serious gunshot wound to the chest which he suffered in the previous novel (this one is the third in a series, and the first I've read). After being discharged from intensive care, he is on sick leave for a few months so is living in his flat with his wife Adriani, who initially comes over as an old-fashioned shrew while Haritos is moping about bored after his operation, but whom gradually we realise shares a close understanding with her husband. The dynamics between this apparently ill-matched but in fact secretly deeply affectionate couple is one of the delights of this novel, as Haritos second-guesses Adriani to avoid rows, to go back to work before he is supposed to, to enjoy proper food rather than invalid fare, and so on. She, for her part, is content to let Haritos do this so long as he does not overstep certain boundaries. Also part of the family is Katerina, the couple's affectionate daughter who is studying for a PhD in another town, and her almost-fiance, the loveable doctor Fanis, the cardiologist who saved Haritos's life and who is a regular visitor. You really feel that these characters have known each other for years and have just stepped into the pages, to return home when the last one is turned. Their interactions are not only full of feeling and wit, but have an underlying deep familiarity - expressed in a variety of ways, not least on the running theme of cooking.
Haritos is insecure about is work. Although he's head of homicide, he's been supplanted by a political appointee, Yanoutsos. He also does not trust his boss, Ghikas, presumably for reasons explained in previous books. While he's convalescing, Haritos worries about his position at work and whether he will be redeployed into a boring office job. One evening, Adriani is, as is customary, watching TV when a businessman being interviewed on a chat show shoots himself on air. Improbably, the "credit" for this act is claimed by an organisation called the Philip of Macedon National Front, because Favieros, the dead man, employed immigrants from the Balkans and elsewhere to work on his construction sites (the novel is set in the build-up to the Olympic games), rather than employing Greeks. When the initial consternation dies down, Haritos finds himself involved in a private investigation on behalf of Ghikas but without Yanoustos's knowledge. Because Haritos is officially on sick leave, he can question the dead man's colleagues and acquaintances without having to make any official reports which would reach the ears of the security police and government officials. Seizing the opportunity with relish, but under the disapproving eyes of Adriani, Haritos energetically throws himself into his task with the help of Ghikas's young assistant Koula, who can also act relatively freely as nobody takes her seriously. The relationship between Koula and Adriani is one of the many lovely touches in this delightful book. Others are Haritos's ancient car, his almost military planning of every trip out so that he can attempt to avoid traffic (impossible), the "character" of the TV in society, and the female colleagues of the dead man, who have abandoned their make-up out of respect for him.
I wrote at the start of this review that this book is long, and indeed it is. So much so that I have barely touched on the actual plot itself, or on many other aspects of this rich novel. Suffice it to say that events escalate, as Haritos gradually uncovers a network of kickbacks and shady business dealings involving immigrants, estate agencies, hotels, the construction trade and tourism companies - helped by Koula and her cousin on the computer side of things. Senior politicians become involved, both in the investigation and in the hierarchy in the police department, with the uneasy, slightly paranoid dynamics between Yanoutsos, Ghikas, Haritos and Haritos's former team. The shadow of the Junta falls over present-day events, and the fate of those communists who were imprisoned and sometimes tortured all those years ago seems to be relevant to Haritos's strange case.
I do recommend reading this novel. It is an extremely assured book, very well translated by David Connolly. The characters, whether major or minor, are superbly drawn, and the portrayal of Athens and Greek society is absolutely compelling in all its neat little details and telling observations of people's daily lives. If the plot itself is too bizarre to be entirely believable, then this is a small price to pay for the privilege of reading such an absorbing, humorous and clever book.
Maxine Clarke, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.