Book Review: Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis

Baby Blue
Stratos Gazis Series, Book 1
Pol Koutsakis
Translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
Bitter Lemon Press, July 2018
ISBN 978-1-908524-91-1

Modern day Athens is rife with corruption. Stratos Gazis makes his living by dealing with that corruption. He doesn’t consider himself a hit-man, although plenty of other people do. He sees himself as more of a problem solver; often the problem requires removing a person from a given situation on a permanent basis. Stratos is OK with that; some people deserve their fate. Stratos does have a code: if a client lies to him, he keeps the deposit and doesn’t do the job. Many people don’t believe this. Stratos believes that when you’re the best, you can afford to make the rules for your job.

One evening a friend, Angelino, calls in a favor. Angelino has a protégé, Emma. Emma wants Stratos to find out who killed her adoptive father several years ago. Definitely a cold case. Emma is blind, and has an amazing talent for card tricks. Angelino, who normally deals in information in and around Athens, plans on making a bundle of money by promoting Emma. Concurrently, there is a group (or maybe just one person) who killed pedophiles; there is a definite signature to the killings and this resembles the way in which Emma’s father was killed. Was Themis Raptas, once a well-known and respected reporter, a pedophile?  Why is there virtually no trace of him on the Internet?  Why was his adoption of Emma expedited?  The more Stratos looks into this old case, the worse everything looks for practically anyone and everyone involved.

There is a sub-plot related to Stratos and his past. The woman he is living with, Maria,  is pregnant. Stratos is not sure he is the father; there is at least one other potential candidate, who happens to be Maria’s previous boyfriend and a man Stratos considers to be his best friend, Kostas Dragos. Drag is also a policeman, a detective. He is investigating the pedophile murders; there may be some overlap with Emma’s situation. Maria isn’t sure where her relationship with Stratos is going, considering his occupation. Life is complicated.

Koutsakis paints a very dark portrait of Athens. Corruption is the rule and there seem to be almost no exceptions to that rule. Good people are difficult to find in this city, and their lot is not generally a pleasant one. Stratos comes by his world view via American film noir; references to classic films are scattered throughout the novel. Like back alleys in some Greek neighborhoods, the plot twists and turns many, many times before the truth (if that what it actually is) is revealed. There are lots of dead bodies, most of them justifiably so. This is the second book in the Stratos Gazis crime series; if one is prone to dark reads, tracking down ATHENIAN BLUES (the first) would probably be time well spent. BABY BLUE can stand quite well on it’s own two feet.

Reviewed by P.J. Coldren, May 2019.

Book Reviews: And Sometimes I Wonder About You by Walter Mosley and Fallout by Paul Thomas

And Sometimes I Wonder About YouAnd Sometimes I Wonder About You
A Leonid McGill Mystery #5
Walter Mosley
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, April 2016
ISBN 978-0-8041-7209-7
Trade Paperback

Leonid Trotter McGill’s New York City office now officially answers its phone “McGill and Son detective agency,” a recent development.  One of his sons, Twilliam (usually just “Twill”), is a new addition.  His relationships with just about all his nearest and dearest being fraught with complexities:  He hasn’t seen his father, Clarence, the charismatic revolutionary who calls himself “Tolstoy” McGill, in years; his wife has recently attempted suicide.  His “blood son” and daughter are Dmitri and Tatyana; Twill and Shelly are the two sired by other men but who Leonid raised exactly the same as his own offspring.  And then there is Gordo, his mentor, boxing trainer, and the man who he considers “his true father.”

Those relationships, and the assorted women who cross his path, either professionally or otherwise, (with several of whom he falls in love or lust, or both) are a major part of this novel, the balance of which are the several cases that come to him.  These multiple plot lines arise in different parts of the book, which is as complex as these may make it sound.  But with this master storyteller, that is not a deficit.  The first of these is introduced in the first pages of the book, and she is a gorgeous woman named Marella Herzog, who fits both definitions:  Client and lover.  Their first meeting, when he is aware of a scent she is wearing, causes “a strong reaction in a section of my heart that had almost been forgotten.”   He describes his secretary as having “gray-blue eyes [which] carried all the sadness of the last days of autumn and her voice was so soft that it could have been a memory.”    Another sometime lover is the “color of pure gold that hadn’t been polished for some years,” with hair that was “naturally wavy and darkly blond.”

He thinks “sadness had as many striations as a rainbow – – only in grays.”  The writing is replete with lines like these:  When McGill visits his wife in the hospital, he thinks “I wanted to say something kind, to slap her and tell her to snap out of it.  I would have torn out my hair if I wasn’t already bald.”  McGill, 55, is self-described as an “old, off-the-rack straphanger;” and “it has always amazed me how a woman’s eyes and her words can find a direct line to my animal heart;” when he speaks to a waitress, she smiles at him, and he muses “as had been its purpose since humans became a species, the smile socialized me.”  I briefly had a difficult time recognizing the quote that provides the title of the book, but the author kindly reminded me:  “Sometimes I think that everybody in the world in crazy, except for me and you – – and sometimes I wonder about you.”  The writing throughout is wonderful, but then we expect nothing less from this author, who carries the reader along swiftly on the ride through his newest, 49th novel, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2016.

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FalloutFallout
A Tito Ihaka Novel #5
Paul Thomas
Bitter Lemon Press, April 2015
ISBN: 978-1-908-52449-2
Trade Paperback

This sequel to Death on Demand brings the reader back to New Zealand and the Central Police Dept.  There are a number of cops who alternate in prominence in the plot, among them District Commander Finbar McGrail, who, we are told, became Auckland District Commander and developed an appreciation for wine pretty much at the same time.   McGrail is still haunted by a 27-year-old case, his first, when as a new D.I. he investigated the murder of a 17-year-old girl, Polly Stenson.  The investigation comes to a halt less than a year later when the police still have no viable suspects in her killing, coming to the conclusion that she was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Only a year from retirement, he is approached one day by a man who was present at the murder scene at the time in question, and given a lead as to who might have killed Polly.

We then meet former D.I. Johan Van Roon, and the man who had at one time been his mentor:  Maori cop Tito Ihaka, described as “unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane” and “the brown Sherlock Holmes,” the latter having been banished to the hinterlands several years ago after a case which he had stubbornly insisted was a murder, not, as everyone else was convinced, a ‘simple’ hit-and-run accident.  Now a Detective Sergeant, he is asked by McGrail to follow up on the new lead.  Van Roon has left the force in disgrace, now a pariah in the police force and working, when he can find employment, as a private investigator and security consultant.  He is hired to find a man who disappeared right after the Stenson murder, for a very attractive fee.  Events occur in such a way that both Ihaka and Van Roon reopen the cold case to try to find the murderer.

At the same time, Ihaka starts a completely different investigation, one that involves the death of his father, “a union firebrand and renegade Marxist,” decades ago, thought to have been of natural causes.  To make things even more complex, a man with whom his father was involved died in a supposed accident one week later.  Coincidence?  He thinks not.

The author was born in the UK but has lived for most of his life in New Zealand, which is the setting for his novels.  The biggest hurdle for me in this book was with the local vernacular/regional jargon/idiom, as well as the many political discussions, making it somewhat slow reading.  But the complex plot was very interesting, and on the whole the book was enjoyable.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2016.