A Week in Books: Greek detective makes English debut

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The Independent Culture

People who never read crime fiction often assume that its writers make up outlandish plots that could never happen in real life.

People who never read crime fiction often assume that its writers make up outlandish plots that could never happen in real life. Bien au contraire, as Maigret would have said. Any single week's headlines will leave the usual novelistic heists and hits panting in their wake. At one end of Europe, the world's most famous modern painting disappears - for a second time. At the other, two sporting heroes dodge a drugs test on the eve of their star turns and either suffer or stage a "crash" that leaves a nation traumatised. Faced with this level of competition from reality, what's a long-suffering fictional detective to do?

In the case of Inspector Costas Haritos of the Athens CID, he would probably flout his wife's dietary advice and nip out for a guilty souvlaki "with all the trimmings". Haritos is the creation of Petros Markaris, already distinguished in Greece for his work in film and theatre before he launched a series of richly plotted, spankingly paced and socially observant noir novels in the mid-1990s. Probably thanks to the Olympics on his home turf, Markaris has at last made his debut in English, with The Late-Night News (translated by David Connolly; Harvill, £10.99).

The misadventures of Haritos in a soaking, sleety Athenian December take us below the official city and the tourist city. They show instead the hidden urban networks of power and fear, of ambition and obligation. The spruced-up streetscapes and skylines of Athens have loomed over our TV screens for a fortnight. Any viewer impelled during a dull Olympic moment to wonder about the background setting rather than the foreground action - or inaction - should make a date with the morose, rule-bending but (of course) essentially decent Haritos at once.

Foreign fiction tends to reach Britain late, like light from a distant star. Although Markaris started the Haritos sequence with The Late-Night News in 1995, the shifts in Greek society that his novel registers look more marked this month than ever. First, one poor Albanian slays a pair of his compatriots: small change for the authorities, just like the illegal migrants killed while building the Olympic venues. Then the star crime reporter for a glossy new TV channel is speared in the studio before a sensational report. In short order, her rival-replacement also dies. Haritos has to piece together a finely engineered jigsaw of clues while his bosses, the TV moguls and their political cronies do their best to wreck the fit. The role of migration, the clout of private media, the toxic legacy of the Colonels' regime, the new cross-border trades in health and humanity - all connect in a satisfying labyrinth. The mind of Haritos negotiates this maze far faster than his car can move through jammed, sodden streets.

Last summer, I met Markaris at a seminar in Rhodes. One of the reasons that he can inspect Athens with such a gimlet eye is that, like so many fellow-citizens, he comes from elsewhere. He grew up in what Greeks simply called "the City" - Constantinople/Istanbul. Far from being a timeless citadel of culture, his Athens mutates with every wave of incomers and every twist on the political dial. Markaris also suggested that his Athenian intrigues - with their tangles of pull, patronage, favours and debts - laid bare the sort of Mediterranean "clientelism" also found in the Barcelona-based books of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, and the Marseille mysteries of Jean-Claude Izzo. All three writers have certainly delivered Olympic-standard thrillers. However, the implication that fictional detectives up in the frozen North operate in a purer political air now sounds, well, a little out of date. In The Late-Night News, commercial TV tycoons bully spineless ministers. Up here, they don't even have to bully.