Review: Paul Johnston – The Black Life

PJ-Black LifeIt’s rare that you read a crime novel that directly reflects what’s happening in the week’s news. Books, on average, take at least a year to write and what is making headlines at the time of drafting can have sunk without trace by the time of publication. However, the slow build up of violence by the Greek far-right party, Golden Dawn, means that there has been a steady stream of stories detailing acts of aggression and intimidation which culminated in the death of anti-racist musician, Pavlos Fyssas, this month. Yesterday, Greek police, who have long been considered to be in collusion with Golden Dawn, arrested some prominent members of the party, although the implications of this aren’t yet clear.

In Paul Johnston’s The Black Life, Alex Mavros comes up against a similar far-right group when he is employed by a wealthy jeweller, Eliezer Samuel, to find his uncle, Aaron who has been spotted on the streets of Thessoliniki. Aaron was supposed to have perished in Auschwitz and his reappearance is both baffling and disturbing. Alex, accompanied by Samuel’s daughter, Rachel, travels to Thessoliniki to unravel the mystery, leaving behind his disaffected girlfriend, Niki, who is struggling with her inability to get pregnant.

The fate of Thessaloniki’s Jewish population during the Second World War is a tragic part of the wider holocaust history and was well portrayed in Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans. The consequences of extreme anti-Semitism has interesting parallels with today’s situation and Johnston, by employing a split narrative between WW2 and the present day, shows how easy it is for history to repeat itself.

There are two areas that are dealt with particularly well in this book. The first is the historical story of the Jews in Aushwitz. The story is now so familiar that it is easy to become inured to descriptions of the camps yet the book manages to give a human dimension to a tale where everyone has secrets to hide. The other narrative that works very well is Alex’s fractious relationship with his girlfriend. Niki is, quite frankly, a complete pain and I’ve struggled to like her in previous books in the series. In The Black Life, she is equally irritating but the descriptions of her desperation to conceive and the effects of the fertility treatment on her mental health ring true.

The ending promises a new direction for Alex Mavros and it will be interesting to see what direction the series takes. He is, as ever, a compelling protagonist so I’m sure there are treats ahead.

Thanks to publisher Severn House for sending me a copy of the book.

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Review: Paul Johnston – The Silver Stain

The first three books in the Alex Mavros series were published between 2002 and 2004, forming a trilogy which reflected Paul Johnston’s experiences living first on a Greek island and then in Athens. There then followed a hiatus in the series while the author wrote some other excellent books, although the Greek trilogy was reissued with a new publisher in 2009. Finally in 2011 we had a new book in the series, set on the island of Crete.

In his introduction, Johnston explains that rather than updating Mavros to 2012 and placing him in the middle of the Greek economic crisis, he wanted to pick up the narrative where it finished in the last book The Golden Silence. So The Silver Stain is set in 2003, which as he rightly points out was the period leading up to the Olympics, where huge public spending contributed to Greece’s current debt problems. Crete was a good choice of location for the book as there is a timelessness about the island with the vestiges of Minoan, Venetian, Ottoman and German occupation. It is the legacy of the Second World War that forms the basis of The Silver Stain

Alex Mavros is hired by a film production company to find Maria Kondos, the assistant to glamorous actress Cara Parks, who has gone missing on Crete. Cara is refusing to carry on filming until her assistant is found and Alex is given a generous allowance to find the girl. However when he reaches the island he discovers the subject of the film, the Battle of Crete in 1941, is stirring up unhappy memories of the occupation for many islanders. When Rudi Kersten, the German owner of the luxury hotel where Alex is staying is found hanged from a tree, his fate seems connected to events of 1941. Alex’s investigation also brings him to the attention of one of the most dangerous villages on the island, Kornaria, which is a no-go area for local law enforcers because of its current drugs activities.

As you would expect from a Paul Johnston novel, the book was an absorbing read full of interesting detail about life on Crete. He cleverly makes much of the contradiction between the unhappy memories of Nazi occupation alongside the growing neo-Nazi movement amongst disaffected Greek youths, an issue very much in the news now. He also, through the narrative, emphasises the extent to which the events of the Second World War remain a continuing obsession amongst modern Greeks.

Crete remains an island with its own sense of justice and the imagined village of Kornaria has a real life precedent. Even other islanders despair at the lawlessness and corruption of the village that has bribed every official. Alex Mavros, with his leather jacket and gung-ho attitude seems at home in the setting and by emphasising his mixed Greek-Scottish ancestry, you can see the tension between his patriotism and his despair at the irrationality of many of the islanders’ attitudes. However, there is also a sense of things changing. The Tsifakis family are a wonderful creation, Cretan, but helping Alex to uncover wrongdoings on the island

As a crime novel, The Silver Stain worked well and there were couple of red-herrings so I had fixated on the wrong character as the villain. Alex’s girlfriend, Niki, remains the only irritating character in this series and I had hoped she wouldn’t reappear in this book. I’m sure it’s deliberate as Alex seems as irritated with her as the reader. There are apparently more Alex Mavros books on their way which I’m already looking forward to reading.

Thanks to Karen from Eurocrime for my copy of the book. A copy of Eurocrime’s review is here. There’s also a review of the book at Crime Always Pays.