Faber & Faber, £12.99: Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
The Black Monastery. By Stav Sherez
A chilly time in the holiday sun
Thursday 28 May 2009
For an atmospheric and accomplished summer thriller, look no further than this dark tale of religion, murder and corruption. The Black Monastery takes place on the once-idyllic Greek island of Palassos, a place that combines stunning scenery, ancient ruins and vomit-slicked dance floors. Stav Sherez's evocation of this jaded holiday isle is superb, whether describing part-time drug dealers or the lazy motion of a fleet of fishing boats. Forget Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Mamma Mia! – this destination is more similar to the sinister setting of John Fowles' The Magus.
We are shown Palassos through the eyes of three narrators. Nikos, the chief of police, is finishing his career on the island of his birth. Kitty, a successful author, is seeking the sun in a bid to forget her faltering marriage. Jason, a would-be writer, treads the wrong side of the line between fan and stalker when he follows Kitty on holiday.
All become embroiled in a murder case – think corpses staked out on altars, torture and some deeply unpleasant uses of the island's centipedes – that gives Nikos cause to remember long-buried memories of a similar crime that forced him from Palassos. Sherez throws the titular monastery into the mix, rumoured to have been the site of witchcraft in its past, as well as an ancient labyrinth, monks with murky motives, a Seventies suicide cult and a modern drug cartel. Miraculously, however, he manages to create dynamite fiction rather than an over-the-top mess.
Nikos comes out of this somewhat lurid combination as a well-rounded and affecting character with real staying power; he is a more convincing creation than either of Sherez's writers.
The Black Monastery goes beneath the surface of its setting to examine the pressures of life in a tourist trap. Whether in its exploration of a police force out of its depth, or the struggle between modern mores and ancient myth, this book is thought-provoking in a way that makes its gory plot all the more satisfying.
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