Petros Markaris: Greek crime writer and social commentator

The Guardian on Monday carried extensive coverage of the post-election turmoil in Greece: the break-up of the latest coalition talks between the three main parties, the risk of continued financial collapse, and a possible exit from the Euro.

In the middle of a double-page spread on the crisis, next to an article entitled ‘Greek party leaders round on left-wing radical as talks fail’ and beneath a picture of Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, was a prominent piece by Julian Borger on the crime writer Petros Markaris, who is currently working on the final novel of (what I’m dubbing) his ‘Greek Tragedy’ trilogy.

Petros Markaris

The first two novels in the trilogy, Expiring Loans (2010) and The Settlement (2011 or 2012), explore Greece’s recent financial and social collapse. They are proving hugely resonant with readers, not least because there is a strong element of judicial catharsis woven into the narrative: the murder victims in Expiring Loans are players in the financial sector, while The Settlement features the self-styled ‘National Tax Collector’, who poisons wealthy, tax-evading Greeks with hemlock. Mindful that temperatures are running high, the backcover of the latter carries the sober instruction: ‘this novel is not to be imitated’.

Expiring Loans

There are a couple of particularly interesting assertions made in the Borger article, ‘Crime writer Petros Markaris channels Greek rage into fiction’:

  • Markaris ‘has combined the roles of thriller writer and social commentator in Greece to such an extent that he has become one of the most widely-quoted voices of the crisis’.

I wonder what Markaris’ starting point was? Was he a social commentator who consciously selected crime fiction as a vehicle to communicate his views to a mass readership, or did he begin as a crime writer and then develop his role as a social commentator via his work? Either way, the fact that a crime writer has become such an influential and authoritative voice on the Greek crisis is fascinating.

  • Markaris says: ‘crime writing provides the best form of social commentary, because so much of what is going on in Greece now is criminal’. And: ‘I wanted to tell the real story of how the crisis has developed and how it affects ordinary people’.

These statements underscore the important role that crime fiction can play in highlighting and dissecting larger ‘social crimes’ such as state corruption, and its impact on ordinary people (The Settlement opens with the suicides of four elderly women unable to cope on a reduced state pension). One might add that crime novels are particularly well placed to provide these kinds of timely social analyses, because they tend to be written and published more quickly than their ‘literary’ cousins. They also reach a significantly wider readership than ‘literary’ novels, which gives them a greater chance of feeding into current public debate.

Markaris’ status as a social commentator is undoubtedly exceptional, due to the extraordinary political and social contexts in which he is writing, but his presence in a British broadsheet, amidst the news and political analysis of the day, is an intriguing illustration of the influence that crime writers and their crime fiction can have in wider national and international contexts.

Expiring Loans and The Settlement both feature Athenian police inspector Costas Haritos. Unfortunately, neither novel has been translated into English as yet (please hurry, dear publishers!), but previous Haritos novels, such as Che Committed Suicide, are already out. A review of Basic Shareholder, apparently due soon, is available on The Game’s Afoot.

For examples of Markaris in action as a social commentator, see his interview (in English) with the German magazine Der Spiegel and the translation of his piece ‘The Lights are going out in Athens’ on the ‘Breach of Close’ blog (which originally appeared in German newspaper Die Zeit).

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14 Responses to Petros Markaris: Greek crime writer and social commentator

  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting article Mrs P. When it was banned books day sometime last year I was going to do a post on a crime fiction novel but interestingly I noticed that that crime books were more likely to pass the censor than more literary novels. I wonder whether this is because they are not taken as seriously as other genres. But of course this means that they can address issues that others might consider too difficult.
    In relation to Greece, Markaris has a bounty of riches to write about when it comes to crime novels. Corruption is endemic (and is only just starting to be addressed) at all levels of society and it is very difficult not to be sucked in e.g. if you go to the dentist and it is 50 euros without a receipt and 80 euros with what does the ordinary person do? There has been some clampdown on the super rich who aren’t paying their taxes although to be fair this isn’t a problem just unique to Greece. The policing and the judicial system is not above this and worryingly in the recent elections, according to a recent poll 50% of the police voted for the neonazi party Chrissi Avgi.
    I would love to read the books published on the Greek tragedy but I suspect my reading Greek isn’t up to it so it is a shame that there are no plans to translate them until 2013, when Greece will have moved on but God knows to what.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks very much, Sarah.

      Such an interesting thought that crime novels are less likely to be banned than literary novels. This would be fascinating to explore in the context of different regimes / countries / eras, along with possible reasons for why crime novels might slip through the censor’s net. As you say, the fact that the genre is not taken seriously as literature is probably a key factor. Perhaps crime is seen as being purely a form of entertainment, and therefore not capable of presenting significant ideas. Big mistake.

      Have you spent time in Greece yourself? It sounds like you have had something of an insight into the everyday workings of Greek society, and into the political developments there (yes, that rise in neo-Nazi support is extremely worrying).

      • Sarah says:

        My husband has been working full time in Greece since 2008 and I have been splitting my time between Greece and the UK during that time. It is a different country today than it was in 2008. I have met some wonderful people but the national psyche is one of brinkmanship and up to now the EU has blinked first. Money is pouring out of the Greek banks at the moment (as none of us want to be stuck with Drachmas).

      • Mrs P. says:

        Goodness, Sarah, that’s quite an insight you and your husband must be getting into the crisis, and I imagine it must be pretty stressful at times too. Wishing you all the *very* best.

        I hope that politically things stabilise soon. The last I heard, a second electoral vote was on the cards, and I can only hope there’s a quick resolution to the current very fractured situation.

  2. Maxine says:

    Fascinating post, thank you. Someone commented somewhere that Marakaris is Turkish – I suppose he must live in Greece and have lived there for some time to be able to comment as acutely as he does. I have read Che Committed Suicide and although the crime plot is batty, I really enjoyed it — partly for the character of Haritos and his wife (although it is nth in a series and the first I’d read, it did not matter that the character had featured in previous books) and of course the themes of corruption set against the preparation of Athens for the Olympic Games (a similar theme to Sergio Gakas’s Ashes but there treated differently, though the corruption of society elements are common to both books).
    The next Markaris to be translated into English (by Arcadia) is Basic Shareholder, which as I commented elsewhere is about 18 months delayed. I saw a German edition in a bookshop a year ago when visiting there, if you want to read that! Arcadia have a very good list of translated crime fiction but nothing newly translated has emerged for 18 months or so- other books have been delayed, and at least one author (Villar) has moved to another publisher between Water Blue Eyes and Death on a Galician Shore.
    I was just wondering if the title Basic Shareholder has been retranslated as Expiring Loans or if we are going to have to wait even longer for this trilogy in English – if it ever gets translated at all ;-( At least MacLehose/Quercus has said it is publishing a sequel to Ashes – next year I think.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks, Maxine, especially for filling us in on the publishing situation in relation to Markaris and other authors. I’m not sure if Basic Shareholder is the same as Expiring Loans (couldn’t find any conclusive evidence either way and it’s tricky given that most of the information about M is on Greek websites, which are beyond me). Any Greek-speakers out there who can illuminate?

      The Guardian article states that Markaris was born in Istanbul to Greek and Armenian parents, and settled in Greece in his 30s, so he has a very interesting insider-outsider status. Elsewhere I’ve read that he became a Greek citizen in 1974. He was partly educated in Germany and Austria and has translated famous German authors such as Brecht into Greek!

      It will be very interesting to compare Markaris with Gakas. I’ve just finished Ashes, so Che sounds like a good place to go next.

  3. Jose Ignacio says:

    Thanks for the link Mrs P

  4. Interesting articles, thanks. I wonder if there’s more chance of UK publication now that this has appeared in the Guardian?

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks, Rhian. If I were a publisher I would certainly consider publication sooner rather than later, as the Guardian article is evidence of how topical the texts are, and of national media interest.

      While writing the post, I couldn’t help but notice how the article has been picked up and quoted all over the place, including Forbes (!). The Euro crisis is obviously hot at the moment, and in many ways, what’s happening in Greece is of interest to us all as European citizens.

      In sum, I think there would be a definite appetite for these novels in the UK. But in terms of optimum timing, they should really be out now…

  5. kathy d. says:

    It would surely be good for those of us who read global crime fiction over in the States to read Petros Markaris’ books. And those of us who are following with great interest what’s happening in Greece vis-a-vis the economy, the euro and the EU. It’s not only a problem for those in the EU, but the economic crisis is an international one, which affects the U.S. and elsewhere, too.
    And, I daresay, lots of actions taken by U.S. banks, hedge funds, etc., have had repercussions world-wide.
    All this to say I want to read the books by Markaris you mention here. I will settle — for now — with reading the article linked above. But I join in the chorus asking publishers to translate these books into English and publish them.

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