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: Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss and Shrapnel by Marie Manilla

Mortal LockMortal Lock 
Andrew Vachss
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-95083-3
Trade Paperback

This is a Black Lizard Original. It sits here on my desk as I write, a smooth cover in deep purple and black with strong, bright, white lettering. The cover draws one’s eye. You sense you might be in for a difficult, intense and very dark ride with this one. You would be right.

This author is known for his un-deviating, straight-shooting, portrayals of often subtly-twisted characters and stories. Readers who are attracted to hard-boiled uncompromising language, and tough, relentless writing, will find the stories in this collection disturbing and sometimes hard to believe. Yet each stands on a hard concrete foundation of reality and truth.

Some of the stories have been previously published and are decades old. Occasionally a reader may detect the aging prose, but rarely. Some of the stories are in first person, some in third. All are up close and personal. They detail murders, drug dealing, prostitution, corruption and other ills of our human experience. Any of them could be drawn directly from the experiences of the author. Here you will find stories of revenge, retribution and occasionally, an uplifting sense of satisfaction that the good guys won. “Ghostwriter,” is one of the most intriguing.

Andrew Vachss is a lawyer who has specialized for many years in child protection. His words have the solid ring of authenticity and truth. His uncompromising view is that child predators are unredeemable. If his stories here collected are to be believed, most should be shot, the rest locked away forever. This reviewer does not disagree. The book is difficult to read, it is far from a pleasant afternoon on the beach. The aberrant behavior displayed throughout is upsetting, yet there are those characters, in almost all the stories, that will lead a reader toward hope. Hope for human society.

A quick visit to the author’s web site is a direct clue to understanding the author’s context. He is represented in Chicago by an agency called Ten Angry Pitbulls, Inc. The collection was supplied to me free of charge in exchange for an opinion. No other effort to influence the outcome has been offered.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

 

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ShrapnelShrapnel
Marie Manilla
River City Publishing, August 2012
ISBN 978-1-57966-084-0
Hardcover

I adore a classic theme with a twist, my favourite motif is self-discovery.  As I marvel at the courage and strength possessed by a character forging his own path, I feel proud and genuinely happy for the accomplishment.  I tend to close these books feeling satisfied.   Usually, the person that I’m admiring is a teen, or a young adult.  Things change dramatically when the person embarking on this journey is a seventy-seven year old, WWII veteran.

Recently widowed and forced to leave his home in Texas to live with his daughter and her family in West Virginia, Bing has absolutely no idea that he is about to question beliefs held and enforced for a lifetime.  He is not a fool.  He knows he will be terribly home-sick.  A chilly reception is the best that he can hope for.  Well, that and indoor plumbing.

At a blush, Bing is just a grumpy old man, set in his ways.   But, there are certain things about “old folks” that tend to be forgotten. First, they are tougher than nails.  These folks were forced to grow up quickly and deal with real problems.  There was no time to pontificate; work had to be done to keep food on the table during the bleakest of times.  Ideas and thoughts weren’t questioned or challenged; people simply put their heads down to work for their families and homes, as well as to fight for their countries.  Times may have been simpler, but not easier.

This is how Bing was raised.  He had been taught to see things as black or white, wrong or right.  That philosophy served him just fine for the past seventy-odd years, it would surely see him through. So, when he learns ‘the secret’ about his new friend Ellen, they can no longer be acquainted.  It isn’t his doing, not his decision—it is simply The Way Things Are.  Never mind that he misses her terribly, or that he desperately needs a friend.

Searching his meager belongings for a way to strengthen the tentative bond forming with his granddaughter; Bing uncovers a newspaper clipping that threatens to shatter all he has ever known.  Questions asked during typically formative years become his internal struggles. Suddenly, he has to make choices.  Rather than being told what is right or wrong, Bing will have to decide for himself; apparently, alone.

Ms. Manilla’s portrayal of the traditional, grumpy old curmudgeon is astonishingly real.  With a seemingly simple plot, she reveals to the reader that sometimes, people are the way they are for good reason. Without feeling chastised, I felt humbled as I accompanied Bing on his transformative journey.   As I read the final pages of this book, I wept.  I shed tears of sorrow for missed opportunities, mixed with tears of happiness for new beginnings.  If you’ve ever had a Bing in your life, well, this book’s for you.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2013.