Friday, November 4, 2011

Ashes, by Sergios Gakas

MacLehose Press, 2011
translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
320 pp

Ashes is set in Greece, and is a story that focuses on a country falling apart, in part due to its often morally-bankrupt caretakers as well as other forces that have sent society spiraling down into a decline from which it may or may not recover.   As a social commentary, it's a winner, and as a novel of crime fiction, it's also pretty awesome.

As the novel opens two things are going on in Athens: preparations are underway for the Olympic Games, and a rather non-descript house burns down, taking with it the lives of a young woman and her three-year-old daughter. The fire also sends a former actress by the name of Sonia Varika to the hospital with severe burns.  Sonia once played Medea, but her career began to slide as she turned to alcohol, leading her to live a more quiet and lonely life away from the crowds and former acquaintances.  When the fire is deemed to have been the result of arson, Police Col. Chronis Halkidis asks to take charge of the case, even though he works in internal affairs.  His chief owes him a favor, and grants him permission to take on the investigation.  One of the first things he does is to contact the owner of the house, lawyer Simeon Piertzovanis, who, along with Halkidis, has a personal involvement with the actress.  Both of these men have self-destructive tendencies, and while both agonize through their respective feelings of guilt,  they turn to revenge against those responsible.   The case is just starting to get somewhere when Halkidis is informed  that the word from above is that the case is over, but as he tries to discover who's put the lid on his investigation,  things actually begin to heat up. 

Told through three distinct voices -- of Halkidis, Piertovanis, and Sonia (now laying in a coma in a hospital bed), Ashes is probably the first crime novel I've ever read where the entire story is analogous to the story of a society in crisis. Certainly many authors have used the vehicle of crime fiction to vent their displeasure with the existing social and political systems of their own respective countries, but Gakas has elevated this trend into a story that transcends individual nations, relevant almost anywhere.   As the country faces a downhill slide into ruin, the forces that have sent it that far are mirrored in the novel's characters and in the story of these deaths:  drugs and alcohol take their respective tolls; Halkidis finds himself  hamstringed  as politics and corruption triumph over justice and truth; even the church is not spared and has a  role in this story; money is king and those that have it will stop at nothing until they have more, while those who don't have it seek their share by doing whatever it takes to get paid.   Seriously, change the names and the place and this could be a novel about any other nation in the current global climate.

If you're thinking about reading this one, and you're not so much into the allegory of it all, the crime aspects of the novel are also done quite well.  Each step of the case reveals new connections in the crime, and the actual solving of the case takes Halkidis, Piertovanis and a couple of other characters into some rather humorous situations that allow the reader breathing space away from all of the intensity of the personal tragedies at work here.   At the same time, the reader's desire to know who did this horrible thing and why grows at each new revelation, as does the  atmosphere of suspense crafted by the author.   And while the ending is a bit depressing, it's totally appropriate to the overall story. Although one could argue (and hope, for that matter)  that maybe all will not be as it seems, considering  alternative connotations of the word ashes -- you know, phoenix rising and all that.

I really liked Ashes; sadly had it not been on Euro Crime's CWA International Dagger eligibility list, I probably would never have read it.   What a tragedy that would have been! This book probably won't be to everyone's taste in crime fiction, but if you like a social commentary in your crime, this one will be definitely right up your alley. It's also extremely intelligently written, and could easily be appropriate for more  "literary"-minded  fiction devotees as well as for crime fiction readers.

crime fiction from Greece


  1. Lovely review. I enjoyed this book too, and it has only become more topical since it was published in English, given the worsening situation in Greece. There was an interview with the author on the publisher's blog today or yesterday

  2. thanks for the link, Maxine. I think the most amazing thing is that having absolutely no knowledge of what this book was about, it was this book I chose to read at this particular time. I've been following the situation in Greece on a daily basis and seriously, of all books to pick up at random I chose one that is totally relevant. Whoa. I hope now that I'm reading Death Sentence there's not going to be a whole spate of odd killings in Scandinavia somewhere!

  3. Yeah, this sounds like right up my alley, political and social commentary and issues, and a good crime drama.

    I've been thinking of reading some crime fiction set in Greece. This book was not on my radar screen, but it sure is now.

    We all wait to see what the next shoe to drop will be in Greece.

    I'm worrying about the people who will pay the price of the economic and banking crisis -- the workers, poor, middle-class and retired people.

    The wage cuts and layoffs, not to mention other requirements of the bank-imposed austerity plan will harm so many people.

  4. It's a really, really good book, Kathy. I think you'll enjoy it.

    I've been following Greece daily, so all we can do is watch and see what happens.

  5. You have the best taste in books!

    The Missing Head is still making the rounds and I have several more potential readers with whom to share it.

    Nothing like global crime fiction with political themes.

    As long as it's not war, especially WWII, international espionage, arms dealing as a main theme, I'll read it.

  6. I am loving all of these books, actually, and I owe it to Karen and Euro Crime for the list of CWA International Dagger-eligible books. Now I'm wondering what's been published that I've missed!


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