Athens Cop On The Trail Of Modern Greece To crime writer Petros Markaris, the Athens of today is both a peaceful Balkan haven and a symbol of the ugliness of modern, corrupt societies. In his detective novels, Markaris takes on the financial and social crises sweeping Greece.
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Athens Cop On The Trail Of Modern Greece

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Athens Cop On The Trail Of Modern Greece

Athens Cop On The Trail Of Modern Greece

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Crime in the City, our summer series about crime novelists and the cities they write about, takes us to one of the great cities in the world this morning. For millions of tourists who flock to Athens, Greece every year, the city at the foot of the Acropolis represents the cradle of democracy and the sublime art of antiquity.

To crime writer Petros Markaris, the Athens of today represents all that stuff, but is also a symbol of the ugliness of modern, corrupt societies. And if you doubt that, I have some Greek bonds to sell you.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli recently spoke with Markaris about his novels and the financial and social crises sweeping his country.

(Soundbite of music)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: A musician plays in one of the few quiet spots on Adrianou, the pedestrian street that winds its way around the foot of the Acropolis. Suddenly, we're in Monastiraki, bustling with colorful street stalls and old fashioned shops - it's one of Petros Markaris' favorite places.

Mr. PETROS MARKARIS (Crime Novelist): It still has some of the oriental; you still smell the spices, et cetera.

POGGIOLI: The bazaar?

Mr. MARKARIS: The bazaar, right. This is the part of the town where the ancient Greece and the Ottoman Empire meet.

POGGIOLI: Markaris uses Athens as a central character of his novels. But he acknowledges a love-hate relationship as he describes the modern city of more than five million people as seen from the top of Lycabettus Hill.

Mr. MARKARIS: What do you see? Something like hell - everything built without any planning, without any controls, without nothing. And in between, you see the streets with some insects going slowly along.

POGGIOLI: The writer says it's as if the city is shouting at him: Are you crazy? Get out of here.

Mr. MARKARIS: But if you don't listen to the voice and if you stay, then you will discover the small miracles of this city.

POGGIOLI: It's in search of those small, quiet miracles, that the character Inspector Kostas Haritos spends many hours in his car, battling Athens' notorious traffic and its polluted and clogged roadways.

Markaris' books are filled with the names of streets and squares. He's been hailed as the master writer of traffic jams.

Markaris was born in Istanbul in 1937 to a Greek-Armenian family. He studied economics in Vienna. He speaks several languages. When he decided to become a writer, he chose Greek as his creative tool. And he made Athens his home in 1965.

He has written plays for the theater, scripts for movies and poetry. Then he decided to write about contemporary Greek society.

Mr. MARKARIS: You want to write, today, a social or political novel, you have to turn to crime novel.

POGGIOLI: The character of the police inspector was a challenge for a writer with leftwing sympathies. In the Balkans, Markaris says, especially in countries that have had dictatorships like Greece, policemen are seen as fascists.

Mr. MARKARIS: So when I decided that Haritos was my character, I said how can I write about a rightwing policeman when I hate them?

POGGIOLI: He decided to take the character's uniform off, and what he found was very familiar.

Mr. MARKARIS: And what I discovered was somebody like the people in my family, and this helped me to come very close to this character. Now we are the best friends, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARKARIS: But it took some time.

POGGIOLI: To further humanize Haritos, Markaris took a real anecdote he was told by a man who had been imprisoned during the junta years. This is how the former prisoner described a young policeman who offered cigarettes and comfort to men tortured in their cells.

Mr. MARKARIS: He was running a bigger risk than us. If they caught him, his life would be much worse than ours. These are the small heroes.

POGGIOLI: Markaris says his own cosmopolitan background allows him to view Greek society from a distance, without sentimentality.

Mr. MARKARIS: Many readers ask me, sometimes, what is common between you and Haritos? Say well, the way of observing Greece and the Greeks. This is the point where Haritos and myself, we are the same person.

POGGIOLI: Inspector Haritos and Markaris have grown to resemble each other also in other ways. They both like to read dictionaries and their favorite food is stuffed peppers.

In the six novels written so far, Inspector Haritos confronts crimes and murders in various settings: the world of competitive TV in "Deadline in Athens"; shady money deals in third division soccer clubs in "Zonal Defense;" and corruption in public work contracts ahead of the 2004 Summer Olympics in "Che Committed Suicide."

In the latest novel, "Expiring Loans", Haritos comes face to face with the financial crisis that has been rocking Greece for the last two years. The four murder victims are linked to banks, hedge funds and a rating agency. All of them are decapitated a symbolic punishment for what the murderer sees as his victims' responsibility in poisoning Greece into financial ruin.

Inspector Haritos himself is outraged by the draconian austerity measures which he considers economically irrational that the European Union has imposed on debt-burdened Greece and other Southern European countries. So much so, that when he decides to hand in his decrepit, 40-year-old Fiat, he opts not for a German or French make, but rather, in sign of solidarity, he buys a Spanish-made SEAT.

It is through the Haritos novels that Markaris has been tracking the big transformations in European societies over the last two decades.

Mr. MARKARIS: What changed the European crime novel is money, is the financial crime, and what we are seeing in Greece today is financial crime.

POGGIOLI: The turning point in the European crime novel, Markaris says, was the Fall of Communism in the East and the opening up of borders.

Mr. MARKARIS: It's a globalized crime. It's all over the world. And governments are just looking away. The cleaning process of this money, then the flow of this cleaned money into the regular financial system is so big that nobody dares to touch it. And this is the big - I mean, topic of the modern European crime novel.

POGGIOLI: Such vast sums of ill-gotten money, Markaris fears, could lead to small countries like Greece, losing control of their destiny.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News

INSKEEP: And tomorrow, we're off to Dublin, as Crime in the City continues on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

I'm Steve Inskeep.


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