If you saw the movie Mama Mia, you know the bright side of the Greek islands: in summer, they are sun-drenched jewels of leisure for tourists. In winter, however, life is not so idyllic for those left behind. Year-round residents must endure cold winter winds, pervasive damp, and lack of diversions. In such small rural communities, lives are built on reputation, and gossip can be very damaging. In some cases, it can kill.
On the island of Thiminos, where the mystery novel The Messenger of Athens takes place, a young wife subjected to rumors of infidelity is found dead at the bottom of one of the island's rocky cliffs. Enter the fat man, Hermes Diaktoros of Athens, wearer of fine suits and white sneakers kept bright with copious amount of shoe polish. He arrives on Thiminos uninvited and unannounced to investigate the young woman's death. The local police declared it a suicide and did not pursue the matter further. Hermes wants to know, did she jump or was she pushed? The fat man has his ways of finding things out, and when he does, of also dispensing justice.
Author Anne Zouroudi's book is well-written, atmospheric, and supplies a satisfying ending. A meditation on life in the Greek isles as well as a mystery with an intriguing PI, the puzzle driving the narrative is well-laid out and reveals itself slowly. The story jumps back and forth between the fat man's investigation and what came before, when the young woman was still alive, the story lines meeting as Hermes concludes his investigation and outs the truth.
I'm afraid small island life is not portrayed in a very flattering light, and there are few characters who appear worthy of sympathy. While richly conjured, life on Thiminos in winter is just downright bleak.
Who is Hermes Diaktoros? That's the bigger question. I wish we had been given more clues about this fellow named after the messenger of Zeus and jokes about his sneakers being his winged sandals. He is obviously a man of means, but how he found out about the tragedy on Thiminos remains a mystery.
The Messenger of Athens is the perfect opening salvo a series of novels starring the fat man. Originally published in the U.K. in 2007, this U.S. edition is being published July 19, 2010. Messenger is the first of a seven-part series called The Mysteries of the Greek Detective, the fourth volume of which is being published in the U.K. in June 2010. Read on, or wait for the U.S. editions; either way, mystery lovers can't lose.