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      POL KOUTSAKIS: BABY BLUE.       

Price: £8.99 Pages: 299 ISBN: 978-1908524911

Bitter Lemon Press

         

Stratos Gazis kills people for a living but only the bad guys. Fortunately for him there are more than a few in corrupt Athens. Gazis is willing to pull the trigger and fire bullets but he is not the existential hero a reader might expect. 'Baby Blue' is the second novel by Pol Koutsakis to feature Stratos Gazis. Both books beat with a humanist heart, and the concerns and relationships of Gazis complement the violent mayhem that drives a solid plot and mystery.

In 'Baby Blue' his lover Maria is pregnant, and there is some agonising about parental responsibilities and commitment. This amounts to more than mere background filler. The conclusion of the domestic drama packs a real punch. But fans of crime fiction that like a gritty thriller will not be disappointed with 'Baby Blue' or too distracted from a satisfying murder mystery.

In 'Baby Blue' the identity of the murderer is hidden until the last possible moment. Purists might say the villain is too hidden and that the intuition of Gazis is more than inspired but most of us will have a wry smile when we encounter the final twist. Koutsakis manages the difficult trick of creating a complicated plot and having relevant characters. Apart from the murdered journalist there is a crew of credible villains. Not only do they exist as red herrings they illuminate the economic, social and moral malaise that exists in most modern societies and cities. Koutsakis reckons Athens is an extreme case.

No one who reads either 'Baby Blue' or 'Athenian Blues' would be tempted to contradict him. In 'Baby Blue' Koutsakis exposes the homeless problem and the impact of European Union imposed austerity. Koutsakis also references American crime fiction, Hollywood movies and American jazz. Gazis is a film noir fan. He has a sense of style and a bleak view of human nature. He does, though, care, which is why his humanist heart pumps indignation at the harm economic winners cause the losers. One of the virtues of 'Baby Blue' is that Koutsakis demonstrates how the crime of one person creates opportunities for others to add to the misery. We experience the ricochet effect of immorality. The moral crusader is not just righting wrong. He is fighting an infection.

Despite the film noir references 'Baby Blue' is inspired by more traditional Hollywood cinema. Before he was murdered the journalist Themis Raptas was living on the streets and looking after Emma a blind girl. Koutsakis is not bashful about borrowing melodramatic elements from 'The Kid', the silent classic by Charles Chaplin, a genius who is too easily neglected today. The murdered Raptas is inspired by the movie, and a reference to a minor scene in the film provides an important clue for Gazis. This mix of melodrama and cynicism is bold and knowing and makes 'Baby Blue' a different crime novel. Koutsakis also has interesting thoughts about the limits of the relationship between success, failure and effort.

At the end of the book the gun-toting investigator Stratos Gazis is bruised but ready for more action. Perhaps Gazis is now ready for a responsible job as a private investigator. His willingness to be an assassin made us interested but he has done enough to cross the line and join the heroes that Koutsakis admires.

By Howard Jackson