PW STARRED REVIEW:
The streets of Athens prove as mean as those of Raymond Chandler’s L.A. in Koutsakis’s brilliant second noir featuring Stratos Gazis (after 2017’s Athenian Blues). Angelino, a powerful and shadowy figure, asks Stratos—who considers himself a kind of caretaker, someone who “clears the world of filth and gets paid for it”—to look into the three-year-old unsolved murder of Themis Raptas. A former respected journalist who ended up living on the streets, Raptas was tortured before being shot 10 times. The m.o. matches that of the currently active killer the press has dubbed the Avenger, who has been targeting pedophiles identified by a popular reality TV show. Raptas had an adopted daughter, Emma, now 14, whom Angelino took in after her father’s death. Emma tells Stratos she wants revenge, not justice, a charge complicated by his learning of an apparent connection between Raptas and the Avenger. While the plotting matches James Ellroy’s best work, Koutsakis does a better job of making the twists flow organically from the characters.
Like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan and Andrew Vachss’ Burke, Athenian “problem solver” Stratos Gazis (introduced in Athenian Blues, 2017) kills only those he feels deserve execution. But, when his trusted information broker, Angelino, asks him to avenge the killing that orphaned his ward, Emma Raptas, Stratos sets aside his code. Emma’s father, Themis, was Athens’ star investigative reporter until he abruptly resigned his position, and he and Emma became vagrants, blending into Athens’ exploding homeless community. Five years later, Themis was murdered without revealing why he’d fled his former life. When Stratos discovers the murder bears the markings of a gang of killers targeting Athenian pedophiles, he’s faced with the uncomfortable possibility that he’s avenging a pedophile who was the victim of vigilante justice. Further complicating matters, Stratos’ digging into Themis’ murder puts him at odds with his best friend, Drag (Athens’ reluctant celebrity police detective), who is on the official hunt for the vigilantes. An absorbing entry in this must-read hard-boiled series, which offers thoughtful characterization and a noir take on Athens’ postcrisis underbelly.
You know that ‘second book problem’? Well, the second in the Athens-based Stratos Gazis crime series defies the rule; it’s better than the first.
Stratos, you’ll remember from Athenian Blues, is a big, well-built, fight-ready but ethics-driven hit-man (work that one out) who shoves his way through the EU-wrecked ruins of Greek’s capital city removing scum. This time he’s been hired by a 14-year-old blind street magician to find who killed her adoptive father.
“Is it justice you want?”
“I’m only out for revenge. Justice disappeared the moment he died.”
But was her adoptive father the saint the girl imagines? Evidence soon floods in that not only was he a serial paedophile but that’s why he was murdered. Yet he never molested her. And, despite the evidence, the accusation does not tally with his life: he had been an effective investigative journalist. So what’s the truth? To find out, Stratos must beat his way through encounters with low low-life, high low-life, low high-life, dealers, hookers, and hoodlums even bigger than he is.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend is pregnant and wants him to give up his way of life. And he has fallen out with the cop he unofficially works with, a man he’s known since childhood and who just happens to be in love with the same woman. And Athens now has become a perfect stamping-ground for vampires – ‘both those that drink their own blood, scouring their legs for a vein to stick the needle into, and for those who go round exploiting the needs of others.’
It does not end tidily.
In Athens, there’s a kinder, gentler name for a hitman: a “conscientious fixer.” In Koutsakis’s second mystery featuring Athenian “fixer” Stratos Gazis—who fixes problems no one else can handle—juggles multiple “problems.” The first relates to Emma, a blind teenage card shark who, along with her ex-journalist adopted father, Themis, performed little skits on the street to make a living. When her father is tortured to death, Emma is taken in by one of Athens’s most feared crime bosses, Angelino, who vows to find the killer and enlists Stratos to help. As Stratos begins his investigation, his friend—despite their seemingly diametrically opposed professions—Costas Dragas, one of the city’s top homicide cops, is on the trail of a killer who targets pedophiles, dubbed by the media as the Avenger. The deeper Stratos and Costas dig, the clearer it becomes that there’s a link between Themis Raptas’s murder and the crimes of the Avenger. In a noir worthy of the genre’s founders, Koutsakis makes Athens, and Stratos, fitting Greek stand-ins for Los Angeles, Philip Marlowe, and Sam Spade.
Polluted, seedy, austerity-era Athens is the perfect backdrop for a crime novel infused with a real noir feeling, and Pol Koutsakis is the perfect author to deliver it. This is the second novel in his series featuring the hitman-with-a-conscience Stratos Gazis, and it’s as good a place as any to embark upon the series if you haven’t read the first, Athenian Blues. Stratos takes care of any problematic people in your life, but only if his own research proves beyond any doubt that these people deserve to die. His own life is constantly under threat, for Athens is like a small town when it comes to the criminal community. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. So it’s not surprising that Stratos’ lover Maria is not keen to bring a child into his dangerous world.
Yet this latest case proves that Stratos is deeply compassionate beneath his cool stance and cynical quips. His homeless friend Angelino asks for help tracking down the killers of his protégé’s father. This protégé turns out to be beautiful blind teenager Emma, with the baby blue eyes of the title, and Angelino is hoping to launch her career doing amazing card tricks. Emma had been wandering around homeless herself for many years with her adoptive father, a disgraced investigative journalist named Themis Raptas. The journalist was brutally murdered three years before this story opens, but there are some similarities to a spate of current killings. Not the kind of job that Stratos would normally take on, but he cannot resist when Emma tells him that she is only out for revenge, that she has given up any hope of justice regarding her father’s death.
It won’t take you long to figure out that Raptas must have uncovered some unsavoury details about powerful people in his investigative work, but there is still layer upon layer of envy, evasion, secrets and criminal intent to work through. There are twists and turns on the path to keep even the keenest plot fiend happy, but this does not come at the expense of the characters. Emma and Angelino are portrayed in an endearing but unsentimental fashion. The baddies are not particularly memorable, but Stratos’ sidekicks certainly make up for that. Drag, the policeman with a single-minded, stubborn approach to solving a crime, might not seem like an obvious ally for Stratos, but they are childhood friends, and so is the flamboyant Teri, who transitioned as a woman a few years back. They only have secondary roles in this particular book, but they form a useful safety net for a man who is not quite the lone wolf you might find in American thrillers.
Above all, the novel is drenched in the atmosphere of Athens – the stench, the missing manhole covers, the sea of desperate people of all nationalities lining its streets. There is a love-hate relationship in the narrator’s description of a city he no longer recognises as his own – “…something sick, trying to look, sound and smell like Athens” This is anything but a xenophobic rant, but it shows a divided city, where the struggle for survival trumps everything else and it becomes all too easy to blame others for your misfortune. This clear-eyed, unflinching view of the city also extends to the description of the world of the homeless, much more complex than it might appear at first sight. Emma points out that she and her father were happy on the streets as well, that alongside the despair there was also a sense of freedom which makes it hard for most homeless people to reintegrate into society.
In modern-day Athens, a city visibly crumbling under EU occupation, there's no shortage of clients for Stratos, the ethical hitman. He'll provide a permanent solution to your intractable problems — but only if he agrees that your target deserves removing. Yet even Stratos can't do anything about the brutal chaos resulting from the bankers' Euro "reforms."
But in the second volume in the series, Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis (Bitter Lemon, £8.99), he can at least try to protect a blind teenage street entertainer after the murder of her journalist father. Koutsakis successfully employs the style and soul of 1930s hardboiled US fiction in a conspiracy thriller that could hardly be more contemporary.
Almost exactly fifteen months ago, I reviewed Pol Koutsakis’s first thriller in the Stratos Gazis series, Athenian Blue. I said at the time that I couldn’t wait for the next one, but wait I had to … and it has been worth it. Gazis is back, though not on quite the same track as last time. A few quick details for those of you who haven’t met the man before: Gazis is not a cop, he is a hit-man … but with a difference. His ‘terms and conditions’ state that he only takes out those he genuinely believes are truly evil, and he reserves the right to drop a case at any time if he decides the ‘hit’ doesn’t deserve it: tough luck on his clients!
‘… [they] expect their instructions to be followed … no questions asked. But not by me. When you’re the best, you can afford to be a maverick.’
He puts his success down to meticulous planning at every stage, and given the shambles of the Greek economic and political crisis of the past few years, that would seem a wise move; for the backdrop to these stories is the crumbling, poverty-burdened, crime-ridden streets of Athens: ‘… pollution, the stench of uncollected refuse … graffiti, the filth … abandoned buildings … shuttered up businesses, padlocks on cafés and bookshops …’. Not much of a PR pitch for Alexis Tsipras’s efforts or those of the Greek Tourist Board, but then, the crisis continues and as one of the city’s underworld bosses remarks, Greeks shouldn’t have ideas above their station: ‘… Athens … is a much smaller city than it thinks it is. This is especially true of the underworld. The same old people going around banging their heads against each other, working for different bosses.’ And presumably evading the best efforts of the city’s police to clear them out!
But that, of course, doesn’t mean that every story is the same … and, indeed, this time, Gazis does not have a classic ‘hit’ to track down and kill, someone who is making life difficult for a rich client. His client is a 14-year old girl, Emma, a brilliant street magician with baby-blue eyes; and he’s introduced to her by one of his underworld ‘sources’, who has taken her under his wing. Her father was murdered some years earlier, in a most sadistic way. By whom? Well, that’s Gazis’ job to find out and what he does with the killer or killers when he tracks them down remains to be seen. Which is perhaps not the aptest phrase, as the girl in question is blind.
The pace quickens as her ‘carer’, Angelino, is violently attacked and Gazis’ best friend, Drag, who is a cop and the best in Athens, reveals that a serial murderer of paedophiles he’s investigating is using the same modus operandi as whoever murdered Emma’s father. So, is this a copycat killing? Or was her father the first of a line? You may think, Oh no, not another sex-abuse case, but there are enough twists, turns, blind alleys and red herrings in this story to satisfy the most jaded palate, as Gazis finds his intimate knowledge of the Athens crime scene is no help at all, the more so as he is increasingly distracted by his own personal dilemma: what to do about the fact the love of his life, Maria, is pregnant. Is it his? And if it is, is he fit to be a father?
‘Perhaps the time had come for me … to quit … for Maria and the baby … It was just that I had no idea how to do it. There was so much violence inside me that I really didn’t know if I could learn how.’
Pol Koutsakis crafts this story with the skill you would expect of a playwright and an American film noir fan, and it’s admirably translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife. I trust there will be more to come …
Reviewed by Max Easterman
Stratos Gazis was introduced in Athenian Blues, a native of Athens who kills for money but only when his targets deserve it – a ‘conscientious fixer’ as he likes to call himself. Stratos and three old friends form a tight group based on past experience: Drag the cop, Teri the transsexual and Maria, with whom both Stratos and Drag are in love.
As the book starts Stratos is visiting Angelino, a man with a reliable fund of information about what is happening in town. Angelino when last seen was living on the street but has persuaded investors to put up enough to rent swanky premises on the premise that Emma, a brilliant young card manipulator, has a golden future. Emma was being protected on the street by Themis until three years ago when he was shot and killed, and Angelino asks Stratos to find out why.
Stratos is still talking to Emma when three men arrive, armed and taking no prisoners. Stratos is able to protect Emma but Angelino is badly hurt. Having parked Emma with Teri for safety, Stratos starts asking questions on the street about Themis. Themis was known as a dedicated journalist and the abandonment of his profession seems odd: it is rumoured that he had been exposed as a paedophile, but Stratos keeps digging and eventually, a new story emerges.
Stratos’ investigations among the lower strata of Athenian society give an opportunity for the author to explore just how bad things have got in the Greek capital since the financial meltdown. This is a novel, but the sense of societal collapse and utter helplessness of the poor is as convincing as it is horrifying. Koutsakis advances no easy solutions but identifies corruption and indifference everywhere.
As he works his way across town, Stratos identifies himself as a private detective, and essentially performs the functions of one, although he does occasionally kill, just to keep his hand in perhaps. He doesn’t really come across as a killer, despite his rather cold personality, but has all the skills.
The professional killer is regularly seen in crime literature and can be an interesting reflection of how the author views the world. I was recently reading Marathon Man, and was struck as to how killers worldwide were familiar with each other and appreciative of good work, somewhat like a professional club. The killer in The Day of the Jackal is the archetypal loner. Stratos comes across as a man with deep suspicions about the human race, and he rarely finds a reason for optimism.
In fact, Stratos finds out at the beginning of the book that Maria is pregnant, and by him. The pair is in love but knows that his profession is no basis for a happy family life. Maria comes up with a solution as shocking as it is desperate.
Reviewed 18 August 2018 by Chris Roberts
A pacy thriller set in the scorched earth landscape of post-crash Athens. Noir with a heart and more than a few laughs. A likeable, but kind of lost, hitman wants to put the world right – but in his own way! Baby Blue is entertaining and well plotted and there’s a twist or two along the way. A genuine page-turner.
Stratos Gazis prefers to see himself as a “Caretaker”, although you wouldn’t want him anywhere near your child’s school unless there was trouble. Stratos is a hitman with a conscience. Firstly, he only takes out people on a specific request, and secondly, even then he only kills people if they deserve to die. Oh! Or, if they get in the way, in which case they deserve it.
When Angelino calls, Stratos agrees to meet him, he owes Angelino a favour. Angelino lives on the street, among the homeless, with his dog Hector, in Omonia Square. But don’t underestimate Angelino, he still has friends in the security services. Today, Stratos walks through the square, past the “girls and boys of all nationalities offering up any and every part of their bodies for between ten and forty euros to any sex-starved passer-by….” Angelino has taken over a building, its full of people being entertained with magic tricks by a beautiful young girl. These are potential investors for Angelino’s new protégé, Emma, a very talented magician (this is the launch of her career).
It’s not why Stratos is there though, Emma wants to hire him to find the men who killed her father, the man who saved her from the orphanage as a small child. Emma is only fourteen, she is blind, very capable and strong-willed. When Stratos points out that he doesn’t do police work, she is clear that she wants him for his ‘special’ talents. Themis Raptas was murdered three years ago, he was tortured and shot to death. He and Emma were on the street at the time, the investigative journalist gave up his job in 2009.
Stratos has two great friends, Teri, a transsexual prostitute, and senior policeman, Kostas ‘Drag’ Dragas, neither mind helping him out. Drag is in the middle of a tricky case. A new TV channel has a show that exposes paedophiles to the public eye. Now someone has used the show to target the offenders. Only, the method of execution is similar to Raptas’ murder (cigarette burns and ten bullet holes). Drag thinks Stratos’ investigation may help the police case. An “Avenger” is out there. Drag is torn, he isn’t all that sure he wants to stop him, but the law is the law.
Stratos’ personal life has always been messy; he’s in love with Maria, who is married to Sotiris, who has MS and is confined to a wheelchair, and she is pregnant and she used to be in love with Drag. Stratos struggles to explain how he feels to Maria. When he starts investigating, the bodies start piling up, it’s clear something very dark lays behind the death of Themis Raptas.
Noir tends to focus on the marginalised, Stratos and his friends fall into that category, but the novel is populated by the people savaged by the economic crash, the street people, making impossible choices to survive. The woman who have to give her children to an orphanage when she is made homeless, for instance. There is a serious point here, but it never detracts from the fun.
Among all the misery, Koutsakis does a nice line in humour, “Marlon Brando’s voice was heard coming out of Drag’s mobile, saying ‘I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.’” Nice for a homicide detective.
Baby Blue is the second outing for Stratos and his crazy gang of friends, who remind me of Alligator’s crew in the Massimo Carlotto novels set in Italy. This is slightly darker than the first in the series, Athenian Blues. As I said when reviewing that novel, the stories are underpinned with elements of Greek tragedy and a sort of nihilistic logic. This is developing into a really good crime series set in the aftermath of the financial collapse. I look forward to the next Blue adventure.
If you like Baby Blue look out for Athenian Blues – the beautiful Aliki wants Stratos to kill her husband, Vassilis, because she says he is trying to kill her. Vassilis says the attempts on his wife’s life are nothing to do with him and he wants Stratos to find out who is trying to kill the woman he loves. As Stratos and his friends investigate, events spiral and the plot races to a revealing, deadly and explosive end. For a darker look at the economic crash and immigration in Greece crime, try The Greek Wall by Nicolas Verdan.
MidWestern Book Review:
"Baby Blue" is a novel by Pol Koutsakis. It is the story of the blue-eyed orphan Emma, a beautiful teenage girl with a talent for card tricks of exceptional sophistication - all the more impressive for her tender years and the blindness that has afflicted her since the age of eight. Emma and her adoptive father, a former investigative journalist, roam the streets of Athens together, earning enough to keep body and soul together by performing Chaplinesque sketches. When the ex-journalist is brutally murdered, Angelino, a well-connected Athenian underworld figure, takes the girl under his wing and retains the services of Stratos to find her father's killers. Meanwhile, Costas Dragas, a top homicide cop and Gazis's best friend, has taken on the investigation of a spate of murders of paedophiles, and as usual, has gone to war with the media. It slowly emerges that their cases intersect and that corporate interests, more powerful than they could ever have imagined, lie behind the murders they both need to solve. Through a combination of experience and the ability to read the ailing city, its residents and its streets with consummate skill, the case is solved, but not without some subliminal tutoring from a great classic of the cinema.
Deftly translated into English by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, "Baby Blue" is an exceptionally well written and thoroughly engaging novel from beginning to end. While very highly recommended for community library Mystery/Suspense collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "Baby Blue" is also available in a digital book format.