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