Deadline in Athens by Petros Markaris
As promised in my previous post, I’ve finished reading Deadline in Athens, the first of Greek writer Petros Markaris’ mystery novels featuring Athens police Inspector Costas Haritos, and can confirm that Haritos lives up to earlier reviewers’ descriptions as cynical and world-weary.
Though not a broodingly moody sleuth, Inspector Haritos is definitely pensive (and grumpy) enough to meet the criteria of this blog.
Before I elaborate, I should give you a brief plot summary of Deadline in Athens
The first in the Costas Haritos series is a first person narratative from Inspector Haritos’ point of view, with liberal commentary that reveals much about his character, but also gives us social and historical context in manageable snippets.
The mystery begins with the murder of an Albanian couple, which isn’t of too much interest to anyone, apparently, not even the Athens police. However, when a Greek journalist is murdered just prior to making a ‘startling revelation’ about the case, everyone gets very interested.
What ensues is an intricately crafted and ultimately satisfying mystery that runs true to author Petros Markaris’ intention to use the genre to explore social and political realities in Greece. It reveals much about politics within government and commercial agencies, the uncomfortable relationship between police and media (each with their own agenda), the political and social legacies of Greece’s not-too-distant history (the military junta of the late 70s, dictatorship, corrupt leaders), the disintegration of Eastern Europe’s communist regime and the resulting tide of immigrants into Greece, plus the state of gender relations as they were in mid-to-late 1990s. Oh, and makes it a page-turning read, to boot.
Misogyny in Deadline in Athens
Speaking of gender relations, I initially found Inspector Costas Haritos’ attitude toward women a bit disconcerting. When faced with a no-nonsense female journalist who, in his words, ‘acts like a man’ he immediately suspects she’s a lesbian, and though he’s kind to old ladies, he treats his wife Adriana quite abominably at times.
In one telling instance, after arriving home still irritable after dealing with the questions of the ‘lesbian’ journalist, Haritos finds his wife glued to the television, as usual.
Adriani was sitting facing the television. She still hadn’t noticed me even though I’d already been in the living-room for a good five minutes. Her hand was clutching the remote control; her forefinger was constantly on the button, ready to change the channel as soon as the advertisements came on. On the screen, a wavy-haired cop was yelling his head off at a redhead. I come across him every evening and either he was interrogating someone or was feeling remorse. And in both cases, he was always yelling. If all cops were like him, we’d all be dead from a heart attack before we were forty.
“Why is he always yelling, the asshole?’ I asked suddenly. I added ‘asshole’ because I know how furious she became when I showed contempt for the heroes in her favourite serials. I wanted to annoy her so she’d give me some attention, but it didn’t work.
Later, when Adriani makes a scornful comparison between the effectiveness of TV cops and ‘real’ cops, Haritos explodes:
“What do you know about police investigations to even have an opinion, stupid shit-stirrer,’ I yelled at her furiously.
“Don’t you talk to me like that!” She jumped to her feet in anger.
“What do you think the police are like? Like that asshole that you watch every evening yelling his head off? They make them like that to fool silly cows like you!”
No, all is not calm in the Haritos household.
Agreed, his wife is manipulative, quick-tempered and sulky, but is Haritos’ insensitivity and outright nastiness any-the-more acceptable in response? I have to admit that I was hesitant about accepting a misogynist sleuth.
I had to remind myself that Petros Markaris created Inspector Haritos to be just the way he is for very specific reasons. In the radio interview on Writers & Company on CBC Radio which I spoke of in my previous post, Markaris explained that despite being ‘an old leftist’ himself, he knew his protagonist would have to be a policeman, right-wing, but ‘likeable,’ as in someone whom the common middle-class Greek would empathize with. Markaris says he struggled with how to accomplish this, but for starters he decided to do away with the police uniform and put Haritos in a suit, as he says, just like the one his own father, a Greek businessman, had worn.
Markaris wanted his protagonist to be appreciated and enjoyed by Greeks in order to achieve his objectives, and the best way to do this, perhaps, was to make Costas Haritos a ‘typical’ Greek, something of a stereotype in his temper, his attitudes, his family life, etc. He’s necessarily a flawed hero; not totally ‘everyman,’ but sharing many of the same troubles and joys to balance his quirky traits, like dictionary addiction. (more on that later – we’ll save it for another post)
So I’ve accepted that Haritos has some uncomfortably old-fashioned views, acknowledging that Deadline in Athens was published in 1995 (translated to English 2004) with the action taking place in the early 1990s. I can only trust that Inspector Haritos will change with the times… something I’ll be watching for in subsequent titles.
Racism in Deadline in Athens
Besides his antiquated attitudes toward women/wives, in Deadline in Athens Inspector Haritos exhibits a blatant racist attitude towards Albanians and other Eastern European immigrants, sentiments apparently shared with much of the Greek population in the early 1990s.
According to Wikipedia, the Albanian diaspora, caused by the collapse of Eastern Europe’s communist regime in late 1980s and early 1990s, and the ensuing economic crisis, was the largest emigration movement in Europe since those after World War II. Between 1989 and 2001, roughly 800,000 people migrated from Albania, approximately 440,000 settling in Greece, where it is estimated that Albanians make up 65–70% of the total number of immigrants in the country.
The common Greek attitude is reflected in Inspector Haritos’ comments about the murder that begins the story:
Two dead Albanians is of interest to no one but the TV channels, and then again only if the murder is sensational and sickens the stomachs of those watching the nine o’ clock news before they sit down to their supper.
When I got back to the office, my first reaction was to have the case put on file. With terrorists, robberies and drugs, who has time to worry about Albanians? If they’d killed a Greek, one of ours, one of the fast-food and crepe-eating Greeks of today, that would be different. But they could do what they liked to each other. It was enough that we provided ambulances for them.
Later, as he interrogates a suspect, Haritos expresses his distaste for Albanians in general:
“Don’t play with me, you bloody lousy Albanian!’ I screamed furiously. ‘I’ll have you for every unsolved murder of Albanian lowlife on our files for the last three years and you’ll go down for life, damn your country and its leaders!”
A misogynist and a racist…and he treats his subordinates rather poorly too; it’s a good thing Inspector Haritos has some redeeming, even endearing qualities. As was hinted at in the reviews I read prior to reading the book, Haritos and his wife are more in love than their frequent battles suggest; when she’s angry and not speaking to him, she cooks him rice and spinach (which always make him want to throw up), but when she wants to make up, she bakes stuffed tomatoes, his favourite dish. When he invariably tells her how tasty they are, all is well in the Haritos household… at least till the next battle.
On his side, when Haritos realizes how much his wife is missing their daughter, who is away at university, he softens and insists she travel to spend Christmas with Katerina. When Adriani asks worriedly what it will cost, he pushes her into accepting, despite knowing, but not saying, that it will clean out his bank account.
How much would it cost? What I had left in the bank, together with my Christmas bonus, would just about enable me to cover her expenses and Katerina’s allowance for January. Of course, I’d be left without a penny, but what the hell, I’d get by somehow.
And the guy is putty in his daughter’s hands… are all Greek daughters ‘daddy’s girls? Another stereotype?
History in Deadline in Athens
As usual I’ve not said much about the story except to say that it’s an intricately crafted and ultimately satisfying mystery. I’ll leave the reviews to others as I prefer to dedicate this post to talking about Inspector Costas Haritos as a character (besides his qualifications as a ‘moody sleuth’), and to comment on some of the ideas Petros Markaris talked about in his CBC interview with Eleanor Wachtel, the ideas he intended to explore in the Costas Haritos mystery series.
One thing Markaris said that stuck with me was that when democracy finally returned to Greece, he had wished that the opposing sides, the battling left and right, would have come to some understanding of one-another, but this didn’t happen.
In Deadline in Athens Markaris introduces another ‘old leftist’ who was tortured during the junta, a prisoner Haritos met during that time. Their relationship, which Haritos keeps secret, is an integral part of the book and I expect Zississ to become a regular character in the series.
The following excerpt is rather long, but I’m including it because it impressed me in how Markaris brings history into the story, giving us a taste of the realities of Greece in the early 1970s, and in how he uses this to develop the characters of both Haritos and Zissis. I don’t think I’m too far off the mark in thinking that their developing friendship is written in the spirit of Markaris’ wish that the warring factions from that era begin to understand one another.
I’d met Zissis at security headquarters on Bouboulinas Street in ’71 when I was a cell guard. Kostaras had always insisted that we be present at the interrogations, supposedly so that—greenhorns that we were—we might learn something, or so he said. Deep down, he didn’t give a damn about our “training.” It was simply that he prided himself that there was no one he couldn’t break, and to prove it he set up a whole show at which we greenhorns were the audience.
But in Zissis, he found his master. Zissis had begun his career in the dungeons of the SS on Merlin Street, had gone on to the Haidari prison, had taken his diploma in the detention camp on the island of Makronissos, and was as tough as they came. He sat staring Kostaras straight in the eye, and never opened his mouth. Kostaras was fuming. He tried all his advanced technology on Zissis: beatings, bastinado, fake executions. He’d let him soak for hours in his clothes in a barrel of freezing water, take him up to the roof above Bouboulinas Street and threaten to throw him off; he even tried electroshock, but all he managed to get out of Zissis were his screams of pain. He never uttered so much as a word. Whenever I took him back to his cell, I’d have to hold him under the arms and drag him because it was impossible for him to stand on his own feet.
At first, I’d taken him for a plucky but misguided lunatic who would break sooner or later. But while it lasted, I began making bets with myself to pass the time, given that I was obliged to sit in silence and witness the whole spectacle. It was as if I had placed a bet that Zissis wouldn’t break. Perhaps that bet was how we came to know each other. They had him in strict isolation and wouldn’t even let him go to pee. During the night shift, when I was alone in the cells, I’d let him out of his cell to get a bit of air and stretch his legs. I’d give him a cigarette, and if Kostaras had had him in the barrel, I’d let him lean against the radiator to let it soak up a little of the dampness. Whenever I heard footsteps, I’d lock him back into his cell. I told myself I was doing it so that he’d keep up his strength and I’d win my bet. When I took him to empty the slop pail and he spilled it because he didn’t have the strength to lift it, or when I dragged him back to his cell after an interrogation, I’d give him the oddbackhander in front of the others so they wouldn’t think I was being soft on a commie. That way I’d get in trouble. I never explained to him why I did it, nor did he ever thank me. Afterward, they took him on a stretcher to the Averof prison and I lost touch with him.
I met him again, completely by chance, in the corridors of the security headquarters in ’82. His hair had turned white, his face was covered in wrinkles, and he was walking with a stoop. But the look in his eyes still inspired you to bet on him. We stood there staring at each other in silence. We both felt embarrassed. Neither of us dared make the first step. Suddenly, Zissis held out his hand to me and, shaking mine, said: “You’re okay, man. Too bad when you became a policeman.”
I don’t know what I was thinking. I said: “Would you let a policeman buy you a coffee?” I was sure he’d say no, but he laughed. “Let’s have one, now that we commies are legal and you fascists are all democrats,” he said. “Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow.”
So far my hope of learning some social and political history via my favourite genre are panning out. I’ve even been prompted to do some research on my own.
By next post I’ll have read Petros Markaris’ Zone Defence, the second in the Inspector Costas Haritos mystery series (published 1998 and translated to English in 2006). I I tracked down a copy through inter-library loan. I also have an eBook version of the third in the series, Che Committed Suicide. Not sure I’ll get through both, but if I do I’ll have lots to say next time. Here’s hoping I enjoy them as much as I did Deadline in Athens.
Next Moody Sleuth Tuesday is 04 June 2013