The Black Life is the sixth in my series featuring Alex Mavros, half Scots half Greek missing persons investigator. Following Michael Dibdin’s lead with his Italian police detective Aurelio Zen, I’ve located each book in a different part of Greece. In this one, after sorties to a small island, Crete, and central Greece, Mavros goes to Thessaloniki, on the trail of a Jewish Greek who was thought to have died in Auschwitz.
Every novel has also had a different form, ranging from political thriller to action adventure to gangster story. The history of Greece has always featured – in many ways, the country has too much history, and not only in ancient times. Modern Greeks have gone through terrible struggles and suffered the most appalling privations at the hands of the so-called Great Powers, one of which was the UK. I’ve often referred to the Second World War and the devastating Civil War that followed. In The Black Life, the focus is on the Jews of Thessaloniki, only a hundred years ago the largest community in the city. Their history is a particularly awful one – around 50,000 of them died at the hands of the Nazis, most in the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. So this is a Holocaust story as well as a crime novel.
As Mavros discovers, the Jews’ tribulations didn’t end in Poland. The few who survived came back to find that their families’ homes and property had been bought cheaply by Greeks who had collaborated with the Germans. Aron Samuel, the
missing man, experienced the worst horrors and decided to strike back.
As is always the case in Greece, there are strong links between past and present. In contemporary Thessaloniki, Mavros falls foul of a neo-Nazi group, led by a local businessman whose grandfather was a wartime collaborator. He also discovers that his client, Aron Samuel’s great-niece Rachel, has potentially deadly secrets of her own. As the investigation proceeds, Mavros’s friend, the Fat Man, is the target of a vicious attack and the investigator’s lover, Niki, troubled by her inability to get pregnant, becomes increasingly erratic.
Writing The Black Life was the most difficult thing I’ve undertaken. I wanted to tell the story of the Thessaloniki Jews to an international audience, but the Holocaust is the ultimate problem subject. How do you treat the murder of thousands with sensitivity? How do you approach the greatest crime in the history of the world? The only way, I think, is to concentrate on the individuals who lived and died. I do this in a parallel narrative that does not step back from the horror. In that respect, The Black Life is the most noir book I will ever write.
At the end of the novel, Mavros realizes that he has opened a Pandora’s box by investigating the victims of the Holocaust. That reflects my own feelings. But the story had to be told. And, if we are to stop any repetition of the blind hatred that leads to genocide, it should be read…
The Black Life by Paul Johnston will be available from Severn House Publishers in the UK as of 29th August 2013, and in the US as of 1st December 2013.