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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.

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I'm a little suspicious about novels set in countries other than those in which the authors have lived their their entire lives - especially books that purport to describe in depth the history and culture and atmosphere of the place and the feelings of the people who have lived all their lives there. "Loving" the country isn't enough.Amazon says she lives in "Middle England". Now, if she wrote escape novels about middle-class female English detectives, she might have more credibility. Or not - she might not have come from a family of middle-class female English detectives. Sigh. Some people will complain about anything.Back to Simenon.

David, Simenon is great but somehow I always feel slightly depressed after reading him. As for Zouroudi, she is indeed English but spent some years in Greece and married a Greek. Her son was born there, and I suspect that giving birth in a particular place will tell you a fair amount about the culture. Well, that's my hunch anyway. If authenticity is your concern, try the Camilleri novels set in Sicily. Ignore the sometimes vulgar language and revel instead in the sense of place, the humor, the interesting characters, the author's sense of morality and compassion, and the very fine writing.

Funny, Simenon doesn't depress me at all. His subject is for the most part the little people, who live and die in considerably more hardship than do most of his readers, but I find his narration compassionate, realistic, and reassuring. Do you read him in French? Maybe that makes a difference. I vaguely remember looking at or reading through a Penguin translation once - not the same thing at all.I look forward to reading Camilleri in Italian, but that's still a year or two away. What I really look forward to, though, are Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo stories. Wonderful as they are in English, they must be very different in Italian.

Literary translation is a thorny issue. If we've read a UN report in translation, we've probably come as close to it as we need to be, but if we've read what's widely considered a literary masterpiece only in translation, have we read it at all?

David, your willingness to undertake language studies is impressive. The great IF Stone learned Greek late in life so that he could read in original form, among other works, The Trial of Socrates. You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.As for the Camilleri books, the translation seems fine to me with a glaring exception: characters such as Catarella, the dim-witted desk sergeant, are made to speak words like "poissonally" for "personally," a regular "dese, dems, and dose" caricature that I found very off-putting. Friends to whom I recommended the books, and who loved them, made the same observation. That aside, the quality of Camilleri's writing is the attraction. It has heat and vibrancy, and seems to me very Italian.

Does it really make any difference if fiction is "true to life"? Donna Leon writes about Venice directly in English. (She won't let the books be translated into Italian.) Does that affect the quality of of her work? I think not. Does it really make sense to say she writes fiction about the actual Venice? I think not. Each story is a fictional world unto itself. Being more or less like Venice and its people is not essential to the stories.

Good point, Ann. Would I be wrong, though, in suspecting that most readers would likely feel that a writer's description of a real place should be true to the reality of that place? I know, that's a tenuous chain - suspect, should, true, reality - but I think you know what I mean. Of course, it depends on the nature of the work. If it's written for postmodernists - whatever they may be - I suppose anything goes, but I, at least, wouldn't take pleasure in reading a story about the people and places of a country written by someone whose understanding is based mostly on library or internet research, with a little tourism to back it up.Donna Leon. New name for me. Sounds like a very controlling personality :O)

David --Yes, I know what you mean. It's natural that we transfer descriptions and images of the real Venice to Leon's fictional Venice.Don't know if she's controlling, but she writes a good mystery. A bit short of clues sometimes -- no Agatha -- but otherwise better than most. (I like real *detection" and that requires clues.)

Short of clues is OK if the story line's good and the narration's worthy - as with P. D. James.It's kind of amazing how detective stories have become such a big business, at least in the US. I wonder if it's partly because we have so little in the way of morality elsewhere. In a normal mystery the culprit gets his comeuppance in the end. Mini-justices. Society as a whole, we, who have all become cynics, know, is rank with injustice, but in the little sealed universes of the puzzle stories justice is absolutely guaranteed. Very satisfactory.

I will put in my two cents' worth on Donna Leon, agreeing with Ann that her mysteries are short on clues. Her characters are superb, however and Guido Brunetti, world-weary though he may be at this point, is one of the most charismatic detectives in fiction. Leon is relentless in her mockery of the two Sicilians at the Venice questura, the peacock Patta and Scarpa, his minion. Brunetti endures them, and manipulates Patta, his boss, by appealing to his vanity. It's very good stuff. I thought Death At La Fenice was one of the best mysteries I've ever read.