Friday, February 02, 2018

Review: The Greek Wall by Nicolas Verdan tr. W Donald Wilson

The Greek Wall by Nicolas Verdan translated by W Donald Wilson, January 2018, 240 pages, Bitter Lemon Press, ISBN: 1908524855

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

Prologue: It is moonless and dark. A pink neon sign, “Eros”, marks the brothel where the colonel has chosen to meet him. He parks, wondering if here, as well as meeting the colonel, he might be able to put the ghost of his lover to rest. But it is so dark that he cannot even find the building’s entrance. Blundering around he is tripped by, of all things, a line of washing. He stumbles back up onto his feet as a yard light goes on and he sees a young woman approaching. As she gets closer to him, he notices her blank stare. He also realises that she is hefting an axe upon her shoulder. He shouts out, “No! No!” as the axe falls.

Athens, December 2010: Agent Evangelos stands in front of his favourite jazz bar at two in the morning and wonders just what a severed head looks like. The case is his, according to the phone call, so he must leave Athens for the Thrace border – the Evros delta, the Schengen area. Evangelos had said into the phone: “A dead body? So what? They fish dead bodies out of the Evros all the time. Why us?” But it isn’t exactly a dead body. It’s just the head. And not that of a migrant, It’s a Westerner’s head – in Frontex patrolled border country. The job must go to Athens, to the National Intelligence Service.

Evangelos is tired. He is always tired these days. Three years off retirement but with the national debt crisis … what were the chances for his pension? Now he will be facing meetings, reports, dealing with the Turkish authorities, with Frontex. How do you deal with Frontex? They’re headquartered in Warsaw. Evangelos thinks this severed head bodes no good for him. He will be squeezed into a tight place. Told to keep a lid on it. So he heads not to his own home but to the empty house of his dead parents to rest before the flight to Thrace tomorrow afternoon. As he stretches out on the sofa his phone buzzes. His daughter’s child has been born, a girl. Evangelos is a grandfather.

Evangelos stops off to visit the newborn on the way to the airport. He knows that his old colleague and driver will not say anything about the unofficial stop. But today Evangelos cannot help recalling other drivers, silent ones; other meetings, meetings where he was as good as told to ignore the implications of a wealthy businessman, a powerful political donor with past links to the Communist bloc. Put a lid on it Evangelos. And this morning’s meeting? Go there, identify the dead man and … put a lid on it. The border is a problem. But Greece will be building a wall, a barbed wire fence, and then Europe will shut up about Greece’s “inability” to secure its borders. A nurse interrupts Evangelos and his preoccupations. The baby brings a smile to his face...

Set in 2010, THE GREEK WALL bursts into dramatic action in the marshy Evros river country of Greece’s north-eastern border with Turkey. It’s a landscape already patrolled by the European Union Frontex forces despite migration not yet having reached the crisis point that draws the eyes of the outside world. A gruesome murder outside a squalid brothel is the fuse which lights up a mess of corruption, sex-trafficking and politics. And the politics of money cannot be far away: 2010 is crisis time for Greece’s national debt and its struggle with “the Troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF.

Verdan draws on his own journalistic knowledge in lifting the lid off the corrupted stew-pot of contemporary events as seen through the eyes of both Evangelos, a weary intelligence officer, and Nikos, a German-Greek businessman looking to seal an important business deal. Verdan’s observant, fresh, descriptive powers paint the setting of contemporary Greece and its people vividly. If I have any doubts about the story it is in the detailed exploration of the relationship between Nikos and Christine which seems to distract almost from the direct thread of the plot. But as I have remarked before I am a bit of a hard-boiled girl. The plot definitely contains a strong punch of mystery and suspense and its hints of an ambiguous past for Evangelos also gives strong potential for more stories to come. If you like the flavour of contemporary politics in your crime reading (as I do), you will find at THE GREEK WALL a meeting of Europe and Greece seen through Greek eyes, a vantage point I haven’t come across before in a crime thriller. I’d certainly like to read more.

Swiss-Greek journalist and novelist Nicolas Verdan divides his time between Switzerland and Greece. His novels, of which THE GREEK WALL is the first to be published in English, have received awards in both France and Switzerland.

W. Donald Wilson is a Canadian translator several of whose translations have been published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Lynn Harvey, February 2018

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