The Taint of Midas, By Anne Zouroudi

An uncanny Greek sleuth cracks his second case
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The Independent Culture

Change is encroaching the timeless landscape of Arcadia, where ancient olive groves are being felled for a more fickle cash crop: tourists. Gabrilis, who has kept bees for more than half a century around the Temple of Apollo, with its glorious prospect of the sea, is tricked into signing away his land by an unscrupulous local developer. Barely hours later, his bicycle is edged off the precipitous coast road. His old friend Hermes Diaktoros is first to find but too late to save him, having noticed the old postal cap lying in the road that he'd given Gabrilis as a protective charm, with its insignia of a winged Hermes. Humour me, Diaktoros had urged his friend, in wearing it; I'm a superstitious man.

An odd one, too: a local, with nearby vineyard and housekeeper, but seemingly unknown, from long periods of absence. Sergeant Gazis, attending with his rookie assistant Petridis, quickly has him down as prime suspect but Diaktoros deftly switches the emphasis of their exchange, politely insisting that he be kept abreast of the inquiry into Gabrilis's murder.

The fat man, as Diaktoros is called, first materialised in The Messenger of Athens, Zouroudi's agreeable debut, where an idle affair's tragic consequence is covered up by corrupt local police. The fat man's inquiries skewer the islanders' hypocrisy more than the original crime of lust. Unsurprisingly, given its title, The Taint of Midas focuses on a different deadly sin, greed, and Zouroudi's publisher is anticipating a further five outings for her nattily dressed sleuth.

However, precious little detection occurs in this affair. The fat man's style is definitely more votive than motive as he potters between characters dispensing moral guidance. The highly coincidental nature of some of the fat man's encounters perhaps ties in with his portentous claim of enjoying "a higher authority than Sergeant Gazis" which gives him "access to facts the constabulary doesn't have". So far there is no walking on water, but there is a definite hint of supernatural agency in his unravelling of crime and the meting out of justice.

This is a gamble, and I don't think it pays off. Zouroudi's publishers are pitching heavily for Alexander McCall Smith's territory, either in Botswana or Edinburgh, of softly domestic detection. There are similarities of style, but neither the dignified humanism of Mma Ramotswe or the perky investigations of Isabel Dalhousie carry the homiletic dead weight of Zouroudi's nimble but portly protagonist. The fat man's mild manner and laconic pace lack any sharp definition, perhaps deliberately, but he also lacks humour, beyond a mannered courtesy.

Combined with plotting contrivances and a stagy feel, any lightness of touch in the fat man's inquiries is lost beneath the novel's presiding didactic tone. With neither mischief nor procedural grit, Zouroudi is left with an amiable but somewhat sententious inquisitor whose own pointedly ambiguous provenance is more of an intrigue than the investigations around him.