The Messenger of Athens

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I’ve been seeing Anne Zouroudi’s “Greek Detective” novels around for a while now, and thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company, I had a chance to read the first book in the series.

When Irini Asimakopoulos’ battered body is found at the bottom of a cliff by the sea, everyone on the tiny island of Thiminos believes she committed suicide. The Police Chief says it happened that way. It was common knowledge that Irini had an affair, and that her husband beat her. No one, not even Irini’s uncle Nikos, feels compelled to look for answers. But when detective Hermes Diaktoros arrives from Athens and starts asking questions, it seems that many of the villagers are hiding pieces of a puzzle that might prove Irini was murdered.

I loved the setting for this story. You can close your eyes and picture a tiny island in the Agean with its cliffs and harbors and mountains. Greek mythology is an interest of mine, so I enjoyed the references to the gods. When Irini tells her uncle Nikos that the gods don’t exist anymore, I loved his response –
“Why so certain? Look.” He gestured up towards the hillsides, and at the open sea. “This is their terrain. They are not far away. Some say when the people stopped believing in them, they ceased to exist. But this view’s still what it was when Jason built the Argo and the Minotaur was eating virgins in the labyrinth… If you look around, really look” – he pointed to the center of his forehead – “using this eye, then you start to see. They’re here. They’re watching. And interfering.”

For all my fascination with the Greek islands, this book did not exactly make me want to vacation on Thiminos. Zouroudi paints a pretty grim picture of how repetitive and dull life was for most of the villagers on the island. Her outlook on life seems bleak, and this is clearest in her descriptions of the world through Irini’s eyes. Irini was disappointed in love before her current husband, Andreas. Her family tried to marry her off to a man she didn’t like, and that ended badly. She settled for Andreas, who she doesn’t love although she is comfortable around him, but his fishing lifestyle and the weeks he spends out at sea leave her feeling lonely and idle. When she meets Theo and falls in love with him, even this doesn’t make her truly happy. Zouroudi compares love to Pandora’s Box, and explains that “the flavors of love are many.” Zouroudi says that, when Irini discovers love, she simultaneously discovers ecstasy, euphoria, despair, devastation, hope, delusion, compulsion and obsession.

Zouroudi’s narration shifts back and forth between Hermes, Irini, Theo, Andreas, and several other characters, and it also hops backwards and forwards in time. For the first fifty pages, it was a little hard to grasp who was talking, and if what was happening was in the present timeline or the past.

It was hard to find a character in this book, other than Irini’s uncle Nikos, that I could really like. Theo seems like a decent enough romantic interest until you see how cruel he is to his wife, even before he falls for Irini. I felt sorry for Andreas when Irini lost interest in him, but I got over that the minute he decided to take his frustration out on her by nearly beating her to death. The police are corrupt. The other women of Thiminos are sympathetic in their roles in a patriarchal society, but they close ranks so blindly against Irini that I couldn’t really like them either.

The saving grace for this book is that the mystery is a good one. I had several theories on what I thought happened to Irini, and I was complete wrong. Also, several things that Zouroudi mentioned throughout the novel that I thought were just informational or backstory details turned out to be important in the end. She did a nice job of tying all her plot threads together. Also, in addition to the question of who killed Irini, there’s another mystery in this book – who is Hermes Diaktoros? Yes, he is a detective from Athens, but who hired him? Is Irini’s death the real reason why he has come to Thiminos?

All in all, a decent mystery. If it sounds good to you, there are currently seven in the series.

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