Paul Johnston's powerful Quntilian Dalrymple novels, set in a futuristic Edinburgh, where sci-fi meets noir, have won him acclaim and awards.
He is also the author of a lesser-known noir series set in Greece with the central character, Alex Mavros, a private investigator who specialises in missing person cases. So far, so main stream. However, Johnston uses the settings of the Mavros books to explore both 21st century Greece and the recent past (recent to Greece with its millennia-encompassing history) of World War II and the Nazi occupation. He writes about a community that still lives in the shadow of this occupation, as does Eastern Europe, and to a lesser extent, Western Europe. Too many novels treat this cataclysm as a piece of gung-ho adventurism with the clearly defined goodies on one side and the equally clearly defined baddies on the other.
Johnston writes about this: he does not do it.
THE SILVER STAIN marks the welcome return of Alex Mavros after a gap of seven years. The book is set in 2003, before the collapse of the Greek economy, but at a time when, in the complexity of the Greek political and financial systems, the seeds of that collapse are well sown. Mavros is an atypical noir PI - he is wisecracking and sometimes cynical, but he is also a man who is loyal to his relationships and his friends. His Greek-Scottish ancestry means he is not entirely a part of the culture he inhabits - he observes it with an outsider's eye, and is observed, in turn, as an outsider.
He specialises in finding missing people. In previous books, this has brought him, and the people he loves, into danger. However, the necessity of living means that Mavros cannot afford to be picky and must accept a case even though it comes from a man he deeply distrusts, Nikos Kriaras, the head of the Athens police organised crime division. Johnston catches very well the banality of corruption that runs deep and destructive roots into the Greek systems.
Mavros, against his own better judgement, takes on the job of finding the missing personal assistant to a movie star. A film company is working on Crete, making a film about the 1941 Nazi invasion of the island, Freedom or Death. The invasion was marked by courage, brutality, Nazi atrocities against civilians and incompetence beyond belief on the part of the Allied command. It still carries bitter memories, and has the capacity to divide a community that contains a German ex-paratrooper who was involved in the invasion, a small group of neo-Nazis, and the inhabitants of a village in the White Mountains, a centre of partisan resistance during the war, now a centre for an illegal drug trade.
The stage is set for a Byzantine thriller, with a satisfying number of crosses and double-crosses, violence, car chases, and a cast of characters who may not always be sympathetic, but are vividly drawn
Johnston uses both the contradictions of present day Greece, and the still-remembered horrors of the Cretan invasion. Part of the novel is told from the perspective of the German paratrooper and his experience of the invasion. We also see the Cretan side, and the perspective of a British agent. The complexities and ambiguities of history stand in stark contrast to the gung-ho simplifications of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Johnston has a tendency towards didacticism in places. He wants his readers to understand Greece - its culture and in particular its language. Characters are upbraided for their mispronunciations and their lack of understanding, but this is done through the sharp eye of Mavros himself, and does not detract from the narrative.
THE SILVER STAIN is a highly readable thriller, told with pace and humour. It's a page-turner, but it has depth and subtlety. The Mavros series is going from strength to strength.