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      Pol Koutsakis: ATHENIAN BLUES.       

Price: £8.99 Pages: 278 ISBN: 9781908524768

Bitter Lemon Press

         

There was a time when hired killers were unfeeling mutes providing existential edge in metaphorical tales of power struggles between gangsters.   Few were self-employed.  They had long-term relationships with powerful wheeler-dealers.  This was before the collapse of Fordism and the arrival of platform capitalism and austerity.  Today it is different.  The world has changed.  The strength of Athenian Blues is that its author Koutsakis recognises change and understands that more is likely to follow.

Stratos is a hit man earning his living in the wrecked economy of Greece.  He has a conscience, is aware of what is happening around him and prefers to think of himself as a caretaker rather than a murderer.  Nice people he does not kill.  Stratos is not just complicated.  He has a conscience. Not everyone will be convinced by the moral gymnastics of Stratos but it does help Koutsakis sidestep clichés.  Even the doubters will appreciate the characterisation in Athenian Blues.  Stratos, his friends and his enemies have background and baggage and, inevitably, they do damage.  It is no coincidence that Stratos met his best friends in childhood.

Like any superior hired killer, Stratos is taciturn in face to face conversation.  He is also the narrative voice for the novel.  Left to himself this contract killer is an enthusiastic gossip.  He describes people and places and is opinionated.  Indeed the narrative voice has an odd feminine edge.  Stratos worries about people and how they feel.  In an odd way this suits the book.  Athenian Blues refuses to settle for traditional notions of gender.  Teri is a good friend of Stratos.  She has had a sex change. The book may nod to the traditions of the hard boiled detective but it soon becomes obvious that those male heroes only knew half of it.  In Athenian Blues the tough are vulnerable and vice versa.  No one is in control, and ambition is a smokescreen that obscures real desire and need.

If at times the character of Stratos may stretch credibility, the book also has a light touch.  The harsh Athenian world being described is recognisable, and the characters are wilful and selfish, yet there is still scope for humour and irony.  The ending is interesting.  The truth has been discovered but there is no sense of progress for anyone.  The plot is contrived but that is part of the fun, especially as Athenian Blues invokes the obsessive characters we met in the novels created by that other social critic, Dashiel Hammett.  The reader knows that one of the two people who hired Stratos is the killer.  Readers will bet on one or the other.  In the end the reader will either be half-right or wrong.  There are good lines and observations.  The test regarding rear windows and women is interesting and may be adopted by some readers.  I was unaware that Sterling Hayden was billed as the most beautiful man in Hollywood, which was not quite the way he described himself after betraying others to the House of Unamerican Activities.  Opinions and times change.

By Howard Jackson.