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The Messenger of Athens: A Novel

The Messenger of Athens - Anne Zouroudi The author’s bio speaks glowingly of her love for the Greek Islands; so I was rather expecting a light and sun-drenched mystery designed for vacation reading. What I got was better – but much darker. This story is more of an expose of all that’s wrong with island life, rather than an ode to its joys.

A young woman is found dead, her body broken at the foot of a cliff. The local police quickly judge it a suicide and thrust the matter under wraps. But then, the investigator Hermes Diaktoros (yes, like the god) arrives on the scene. It is unclear who he is working for, or what his background is – but his goal is clearly justice, and to that end, he will tease out the dirty and unpleasant secrets that lie in the hearts of the islanders.
I’m not sure exactly when the book is set – I’d guess somewhere between the 1950s and the 1970s. It has an old-fashioned feel to it which I wasn’t entirely sure was due to the time period or the remoteness and social isolation of the setting. There’s a relentlessness to the book – I began to truly feel the sense of being worn down by strict social rules and the moral condemnation of ones’ peers; the sense that an island, however lovely, is a trap, imprisoning one with the promise of a simple life and torturing one with the tedium of the sameness of days. The people here are hidebound in all the worst ways, and hope, for anyone, involves getting off the island, ‘home’ though it may be.

Don’t get me wrong – the sense of place here is wonderful. Very nice writing. The book gives an authentic-feeling glimpse into the world of the ‘locals’ of a tourist destination in the off-season. I’d recommend this to those who are fans of much of the new crop of Scandinavian crime fiction – it’s got a lot in common with many of those books, with its depiction of isolation and the insights into the shadowy side of human venality.

The truly unique aspect to these books, however, is the investigator. Hermes excuses his unusual name by claiming that his father was a classical scholar – but one cannot help but wonder if there’s more to the character than that. He’s intentionally opaque, in a very intriguing way. Is he actually an avatar of Hermes, or the arm of some kind of divine justice? At times he reminded me of an angel of vengeance. I enjoyed his character a lot – and I’ve already started the next book in the series.

Copy provided by NetGalley.