Athens Cop On The Trail Of Modern Greece

Aug 31, 2011

For millions of tourists who flock to Athens every year, the city at the foot of the Acropolis represents the cradle of democracy and the sublime art of antiquity.

But to crime writer Petros Markaris, the Athens of today is both a peaceful Balkan haven and a symbol of the ugliness of modern, corrupt societies. In his detective novels, he takes on the financial and social crises sweeping Greece.

The city itself is a central character in his novels. On a recent day, he takes a visitor to one of Athens' oldest parts, Monastiraki. Bustling with colorful street stalls and old-fashioned shops, it's also one of Markaris' favorite places.

"It still has some of the oriental. You still smell the spices. .... This is the part of the town where ancient Greece and the Ottoman Empire meet," Markaris says.

But the author acknowledges his love-hate relationship with Athens as he describes the modern city of more than 5 million people as seen from the top of Lycabettus Hill.

"What do you see? Something like hell. Everything built without any planning, without any controls, with nothing. And in between you see the streets with some insects going slowly along," he says.

The writer says it's as if the city is shouting at him, "Are you crazy? Get out of here."

"But if you don't listen to the voice, and if you stay, then you will discover the small miracles of the city," Markaris says.

It's in search of those small, quiet miracles that the character Costas Haritos, a police inspector, spends many hours in his car battling Athens' notorious traffic and its polluted and clogged roadways. Markaris' books are filled with the names of streets and squares; he's been hailed as the master writer of traffic jams.

Born in Istanbul in 1937 to a Greek-Armenian family, Markaris studied economics in Vienna and speaks several languages. When he decided to become a writer, he chose Greek as his creative tool. And he made Athens his home in 1965.

He has written plays for the theater, scripts for movies, and poetry.

Then he decided to write about contemporary Greek society.

"You want to write today a social or political novel, you have to turn to the crime novel," he says.

Humanizing The Inspector

Inspector Haritos first appeared in Late-Night News (known as Deadline in Athens in the U.S.), which was published in Greece in 1995. The character was a challenge for Markaris, a writer with left-wing sympathies. In the Balkans, he says, especially in countries such Greece that have had dictatorships, policemen are seen as fascists.

"So when I decided that Haritos was my character, I said, 'How can I write about a right-wing policeman when I hate him?'" Markaris recalls.

He decided to take the character's uniform off, and what he found was very familiar.

"What I discovered was somebody like the people in my family, and this helped me to come very close to this character. Now we are best friends, but it took some time," Markaris says.

To further humanize Haritos, Markaris took a real anecdote he was told by a man who had been imprisoned during Greece's junta years, from 1967 to 1974.

The former prisoner described a young policeman who had offered cigarettes and comfort to men tortured in their cells.

"He was running a bigger risk than us. If they caught him, his life would be much worse than ours. These are the small heroes," Markaris says.

The writer says his own cosmopolitan background allows him to view Greek society from a distance, without sentimentality.

He says his readers sometimes ask what he and his character have in common.

"The way of observing Greece and the Greeks — this is the point where Haritos and myself, we are the same person," he says.

Inspector Haritos and Markaris have grown to resemble each other also in other ways. They both like to read dictionaries and their favorite food is stuffed peppers.

Tracking Europe's Transformations

In the six novels written so far, Haritos confronts crimes — and murders — in various settings: the world of competitive TV in Deadline in Athens, shady money deals in third division soccer clubs in Zone Defence, and corruption in public work contracts ahead of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Che Committed Suicide.

In the latest novel, Expiring Loans, Haritos comes face to face with the financial crisis that has been rocking Greece for the last two years.

The four murder victims are linked to banks, hedge funds and a rating agency. All of them are decapitated — a symbolic punishment for what the murderer sees as his victims' responsibility in poisoning Greece into financial ruin.

Haritos himself is outraged by the draconian austerity measures — which he considers economically irrational — that the European Union has imposed on debt-burdened Greece and other southern European countries.

So much so, that when he decides to trade in his decrepit, 40-year-old Fiat, he opts not for a German or French make. Rather, in a sign of solidarity, he buys a Spanish-made Seat.

Through the Haritos novels, Markaris has been tracking the big transformations in European societies over the last two decades.

"What changed the European crime novel is money, is financial crime, and what we are seeing in Greece today is financial crime," he says.

The turning point in the European crime novel, Markaris says, was the fall of communism in the east and the opening up of borders.

"It's a globalized crime, it's all over the world, and governments are just looking away. The cleaning process of this money, then the flow of this cleaned money into the regular financial system, is so big that nobody dares to touch it, and this is the big topic of the modern European crime novel," he says.

Such vast sums of ill-gotten money, Markaris fears, could lead to small countries like Greece losing control of their destiny.

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