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Review: Deadline in Athens

Deadline in Athens, by Petros Markaris, is a novel that feels almost like a time capsule or microcosm of Athens, Greece. Having lived and studied in Athens during my undergraduate years, I was as interested in the setting and backdrop of this novel as I was in the plot. Deadline in AthensThe writing evokes sights and sounds, as well as the general social and political feelings of the bustling Greek city. The main character is police inspector Costas Haritos, a gruff cop with problems pervading both his personal and professional lives. He is by no means a knight in shining armor, but a flawed man that takes some getting used to.

The novel begins with the brutal murder of an Albanian couple, which the Greek police cursorily investigate. The general sentiment in the novel is that the Albanians in Greece are a bad element of society, and that it’s no tragedy that two of them have turned up dead. When another Albanian is arrested for the murder, one character even comments that it’s a good day when three Albanians are taken off the streets of Athens. The ingrained racism is off-putting, but is also a reality that I noted during my own time in Greece.

While the policemen are congratulating themselves on closing the case, a reporter named Yanna Karayoryi breezes into the station and tells them that not only did they get it wrong, but they also missed a crucial element: a child. Karayoryi proceeds to announce this on the evening news, much to the chagrin of the police. Haritos is furious that the reporter is either lying or not sharing all she knows, but before he can press her for more information, Karayoryi is also murdered.

Haritos must investigate Karayoryi’s murder as well as continuing to try to run down the truth of the alleged missing child. The closer Haritos looks, the more potential motives and murderers he uncovers for each victim.  Connections are made and then broken within pages. The investigation is murky and tangled, with many red herrings and unexpected twists. The story lagged a bit in parts, though sometimes small details that emerged in seemingly unimportant passages would then become important clues later on. I got a few things right, but the big reveal was not what I was expecting at all.

A really singular aspect of this novel is the competition and animosity between the police and the news media. The reporters consider it a victory if they can scoop the police and flaunt it on television, while the police are constantly trying to keep the reporters at arm’s length from the investigation. Cooperation is minimal and grudging. In the United States, we’ve become highly used to crime as entertainment, whether fictional (a la CSI and Law and Order) or real (on the news, as well as shows like Nancy Grace). In Deadline in Athens — get the pun, by the way? — the investigations aren’t just about ratings; they’re about establishing a new order in a nation that is still finding its modern identity.

I don’t know that this book would have wide appeal for the general American audience, simply because it is so rooted in the culture of practices of Greece. Familiarity with Greece — especially Athens — was really the main thing that kept me tied to this book when the mystery aspect wasn’t engaging me. It’s an interesting read, an unusual and unique mystery, but it’s not what I would consider a thriller. The suspense is there in parts, but it wasn’t hard to put down the way some mysteries are. I enjoyed it, but it also took me considerably longer than I expected to finish it. It’s a dark, gritty novel, with many noir aspects. It’s a worthwhile read, but not necessarily a fun one.

Happy Reading!

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Review: The City & The City

China Miéville’s novel The City & The City certainly lives up to its author-given label  of weird fiction. Rest assured, I mean that as a compliment. It’s a little bit paranormal, but totally rooted in the real world. It’s strange, but makes sense in its own way. It gives commentary on many aspects of modern society and culture, without getting pretentious. Essentially, Miéville gives the reader a thoroughly foreign fictional world that is recognizable and relatable regardless of its oddity.

There is no exposition; Inspector Tyador Borlú arrives at the crime scene on page one, kicking off the investigation that drives the novel. A body of a young woman has been found in an alley of Besźel and Borlú is heading up the case. The young woman is initially a “Fulana Detail” (the Besź name given to unknowns, the equivalent to “Jane Doe” in the United States), but Borlú and his partner Corwi quickly turn up multiple names and aliases for her. Their investigation takes many erratic and unorthodox turns, including some clues that come from sources that Borlú can’t even admit to having been in contact with.

This secrecy is due to the politics of Besźel — and its neighboring city of Ul Qoma. The two cities occupy the same geographic location, but they operate as entirely separate entities that don’t even acknowledge each other unless forced to do so. The people of Besźel and Ul Qoma are raised to “unsee” the opposite city and its citizens, a psychological training that allows them to ignore foreign happenings, even if they are unfolding right next to them. Each considers the other to be an international city, and the consequences for breaking the invisible barriers between the cities is swift and irreversible. There is a shadowy sort of secret police called Breach that enforces the rules of unseeing with an iron fist, to the point that both Besź and Ul Qomans don’t even like to mention the dark organization. There is also the shadowy possibility of a third city, Orciny. The characters generally consider Orciny to be a folk legend, but Borlú is forced to reconsider his beliefs when the third city becomes a major factor in his investigation.

It takes some time as a reader to fully understand the intricacies of the relationship between Besźel and Ul Qoma, but to me, the interplay between the city and the city was just as interesting as the murder mystery that spans both locations. I really enjoyed Miéville’s language and writing style, as well as the imagery he crafts. The murder investigation is almost secondary at times to the history and politics of the cities; I generally didn’t mind this, but at times it made the pacing drag somewhat. This certainly isn’t a thriller, but it is still an excellent mystery, with plenty of viable suspects and shifting motives. Miéville had me guessing literally right up until the murderer was revealed.

I realize this is a much vaguer description and review than usual, but I think that part of what makes this novel unique and worthwhile is the gradual dawning of understanding and the feeling of working right alongside Borlú to unravel the case. I definitely recommend reading The City & The City, and so I don’t want to ruin anybody’s independent journey through the pages. I honestly don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much had I known what was happening from the outset. My recommendation: dive into the weird fiction world of Miéville. Don’t give up on this novel if it seems slow or nonsensical at points. Read through to the end, because the final twist not only comes out of nowhere, but forces you to continue to reevaluate the events of the novel long after you finish reading.

Happy reading!

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