Between 2009 and 2012 I had to spend a lot of time, for family reasons, in Athens. The city has a crazed petrol-head energy about it that can be fun, but behind the scenes there’s pain. There always has been. In those years the economic crisis was starting to bite, into people’s hearts as well as pockets. Everything, present and future, seemed blighted. Cuts in salaries and social services, businesses dying, hunger and unemployment visible on the streets… Meanwhile, in classic third-world style, an elite of politicians, bankers and entrepreneurs continued to explore the frontiers of luxury without shame, and with their customary sense of entitlement. The people who created the debt crisis were making innocent people pay.
It all got on top of me. I needed to vent my anger. I decided to write a crime novel exposing the cruelties and contradictions of our society.
I chose as victim a person who represents the flower of Greek life: a fearless, generous and open-minded man, who is shot just minutes before he is due to give a lecture on the ‘dark side’ of ancient Greece – a taboo subject even today. The hero of the book, private investigator George Zafiris, struggles to find out why anyone would want to kill him. As the days go by he uncovers worse crimes – some quick, like a shooting, others slow, like the gradual, grinding despair brought on by the heartless state bureaucracy.
The difficulties of writing this novel? Two things stand out. One you might call the ‘El Greco’ problem: finding Greek names that foreign readers won’t struggle to pronounce, give up on, and quickly forget. (El Greco’s real name, remembered only by his fellow Greeks, was Domenicos Theotocopoulos.) An English TV commentator once complained that just the back four of a Greek football team had forty-seven syllables between them. I didn’t want that said about my book. So I had to find short, memorable names for my characters. I filled pages of notes trying them out.
A more serious difficulty was spending time buried deep in the ugliest aspects of human life: violence, dishonesty, greed, hatred. And then describing all the physical consequences, the blood, filth and chaos. Many days I stood up from my desk feeling I had wrestled with the devil.
One consolation is to be found in those moments of narrative truce when the hero stops work and enjoys a swim, a meal, or a night of love. I was inspired, in this and much else, by Jean-Claude Izzo’s whisky-soaked Marseilles trilogy. Izzo is credited with inventing ‘Mediterranean noir’. It’s a great genre – highly coloured, tragic and sensuous – and it’s one I feel very much at home in.
Codename Xenophon is published in April 2014 by Dedalus, £9.99. There’s a short film about the book on the Dedalus website: www.dedalusbooks.com