Return of the Fat Man
Someday someone will write a book about what swell people real estate developers are, but not just yet. Anne Zouroudi’s second book, The Taint of Midas, is another cautionary tale, this time about greed, set on the fictional Greek island of Arcadia. The island’s sun-drenched charms have been discovered by tourists from Scandinavia, Britain, and Germany. Aris Paliakis, developer and entrepreneur, wants their business.
Many of Arcadia’s people are saddened by the rampant destruction of olive groves and other beautiful sites as corrupt local officials change zoning laws to benefit developers; hotels and villas for foreign visitors begin to sprout all over. One of the most beautiful sites, a hilltop with the crumbling remains of a temple to Apollo, belongs to Gabrilis Kaloyeros, an elderly beekeeper who is nearly blind. Aris Paliakis covets that land. Even though it is protected as a historic sight, he know which officials to bribe. Shortly after he connives to have Gabrilis sign a document waiving his interest in the land, the beekeeper is struck by a car, while on his way to market, and left to die.
Enter the so-called fat man, Hermes Diaktoros. The island is his ancestral home and, after a long absence, he was on his way to visit Gabrilis, an old and dear friend. Instead, he is shocked to stumble upon his body. The police initially think that Hermes may be involved in the old man’s death simply because he found the body. An ambulance is called for; soon after it arrives, a car screeches to the site. The driver is Dinos Karayannis, an arrogant and unscrupulous reporter, sniffing for a story.
Hermes is convinced that the death is not the result of a simple accident, and that Gabrilis was deliberately left to die. Although Aris Paliakis has a strong motive for the death, he and his two sons have solid alibis. Both sons assist him in his business, one as a brilliant lawyer and the other as something of an enforcer.
As in Zourodi’s first book, The Messenger of Athens, the fat man continues his mysterious ways. He seems to intuit people’s innermost feelings, and to have extraordinary knowledge of their lives. He methodically begins the process of discovering the truth of Gabrilis’s death, finding an ally in Thanos Gazis, a straight-arrow police sergeant. Gazis, now convinced that the manner of death needs an inquiry, is also trying to steer George Patridis, an idealistic rookie, on the path of righteousness. His efforts appear thwarted by Dinos, the reporter, who entraps the young constable with alcohol and prostitutes.
To prepare himself for the hard work ahead Hermes drives to a secluded beach to swim and snorkel. He surfaces near a fishing boat and is invited aboard for coffee by Sostis, a fisherman who also half-heartedly runs a barber shop in town. A bond is forged between the two men when, in the course of their conversation, a most unusual coincidence is revealed. Sostis also knows a lot about Aris Paliakis’s business, information he shares with Hermes.
As the fat man goes about the island gathering facts and setting snares, it gives Zouroudi the opportunity to share her love of local lore and of the Greek island landscape, to describe the lush bounty of grapes, figs, melons, olive groves, and wildflowers. The book opens with a wonderful passage about Gabrilis’s beehives: the top of each brilliant yellow hive is painted with “a woman’s eye, exotic, like the kohl-rimmed eyes of yashmaked (veiled) faces . . . the eyes of hieroglyphs in Egyptian tombs . . .” The eyes look toward the heavens, keeping “a vigil, warding off the Evil Eye . . . deflecting the badness of ill-wishers from the bees.” For many years Gabrilis lovingly tended the bees, the vines, and the ancient stones of this beautiful place with its salt-scented air. Now, the ill-wishers are near.
A chance occurrence brings Hermes to the Paliakis home and to Ourania, the wife from whom Paliakis is more or less estranged. Ourania is beautiful, aristocratic, and deeply religious. Her happiness has been destroyed by her husband’s passion for money, and she finds consolation in the company of a devout Orthodox priest, Father Babis. They both believe that heaven will reward them for their sorrows here on earth. Hermes has great empathy for them.
When Hermes feels that he at last has the truth of Gabrilis’s lonely death, and of Paliakis’s attempts to deprive the old man of his home, he goes about the business of avenging his friend. The evildoers are punished cruelly and quite vividly, each one losing, as the fat man promised, that which he most loved. Those whose lives are governed by more gentle instincts are variously rewarded in ways that point to fulfillment, rather than riches.
So, is the fat man a messenger of the gods? It really does not matter. Zouroudi goes lightly on the other-worldliness of his powers. In this book and in her first, she visits certain characters with afflictions that cause either pain or shame or unhappiness. Perhaps in a nod to ancient tradition Hermes, the fat man, gives each of the afflicted characters a potion, powder, or ointment of mysterious origins which cure what modern medicines could not. We may take this as a clue while looking forward eagerly to his next appearance and to the vanquishing of more sin.