Trigger warning for domestic violence.
If it weren’t for the helicopter in the book’s prologue, I would have thought that Anne Zouroudi’s The Messenger of Athens took place decades or even a century ago. The attitudes of the people of the fictional (I think) Greek island of Thiminos are very…conservative about gender roles, is probably the most diplomatic way to say it. Women have limited options. They are expected to be faithful housewives and fruitful mothers. The men are almost as limited. The men are supposed to be the breadwinners and patriarchs. A lot of them are lecherous scoundrels but, as long as they don’t go too far, their bad behavior is dismissed as “boys will be boys.” Our protagonist, Athenian investigator Hermes Diaktoros, wades into this festering setting to investigate the death of Irini Asimakopoulos, whose death is being swept under the proverbial rug.
Hermes is nearly constantly described in The Messenger of Athens as “the fat man,” with white sneakers that he calls his wingéd shoes. (Because Hermes.) He arrives on Thiminos and almost immediately starts making a pest of himself with the local police, especially the terrible, corrupt Chief of Police. It takes him a lot of time and effort to get people to talk to him about what happened to Irini and why. Flashbacks to one year before her death help fill in a lot of details as Hermes pieces things together. The more we learn, the more tragic the story becomes. There is doomed love. There is jealousy. There is betrayal, loneliness, and claustrophobic desires to leave the island for the wider world. And yet, Zouroudi devotes loving sentences to the beauty and quiet of the island. Is it possible to fall in love with a place when most of the inhabitants are awful?
Hermes reminds me a lot of Hercule Poirot. He enjoys good food and company, though he’s not nearly as fussy about his appearance (apart from his shoes). He is a quiet detective, who keeps his cards close to his chest while he asks people uncomfortable questions. Hermes is also a lot more flexible when it comes to administering justice than your average detective. The ending of The Messenger of Athens astonished me for its brutality when people start to take their revenge. I’m not sure what it says about me that I approve of Hermes’ actions more than not. The crime he uncovers is one that traditional justice would struggle to adjudicate. No one would be satisfied with whatever the judicial system did. Above all, I am very satisfied that someone is standing up for poor Irini. Hermes will not let people forget until the guilty parties have been (creatively) punished for her death. The Messenger of Athens is an astonishing, disturbing read.