An interview with John X. Cooper (born Yianni Xiros) about his new novel Dead Letter – and two excerpts from the book
The ruins of Rhamnous, the ancient city just north of Athens, where Akritas is pursued by assassins
Why did you decide to set Dead Letter in contemporary Athens?
I taught English literature at the University of British Columbia for many years and when I retired I thought I’d finally get to read all those books that I had referred to many times in lectures and my academic writing but never actually read from cover to cover. One of those books was the Bible. So, I started with Genesis, Chapter 1 and worked my way through to the final chapter of Revelations. There was an episode in Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 17: 16-34) that really caught my attention.
It was St. Paul’s visit to Athens in 51 AD, when the news of Christianity arrived in Athens. I was amused by the reaction of the pagan philosophers, Epicureans and Stoics, to Paul’s message. They dismissed it as the ramblings of a lunatic. I remember thinking that not much had change in the sceptical attitudes of Athenians in 2000 years.
But later I wondered why Paul had never written one of his famous letters to the Athenians. Why did the Corinthians, Thessalonians, Philippians, and others receive epistles from Paul but not Athens? Then it occurred to me that perhaps he had written such a letter, but it was lost, or better still, it was suppressed. What if someone in contemporary Athens found it in the National Library and then was murdered? It seemed like the beginning of a damn good story.
Raphael’s picture of St. Paul preaching to the Athenians
What is your own connection with Greece?
I was born Yianni Xiros in the Kypseli neighbourhood of Athens and lived there with my parents for the first few years of my life. My parents divorced when I was five and my mother left Greece with me in tow for Bergamo in Italy where her brother was in business. We lived there for two years until she met Norman Cooper. He was British and his sister was married to my mother’s brother. They fell in love, married in the UK, and after a two-year sojourn in his family home in Sussex, we immigrated to Montreal in Canada. In 2013 when I retired from my academic post I returned to Athens to reconnect with my roots and now I spend periods of time every year in Canada, the UK, and Athens.
The old National Library on Panepistimiou Street. The archives of the Library have now been moved to a new facility in Kallithea.
Who is Panos Akritas?
Panos is a captain in the Hellenic Police (the Astynomia Elleniki) with its headquarters in the big police building on Alexandras Avenue across from the Panathinaikos football stadium. Akritas is the family name of a medieval Greek warrior who is the subject of a well-known epic poem from the 10th century AD. The poem called Digenis Akritas Basileios tells of the heroic exploits of this warrior in defending the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire against invaders from Central Asia. The folksongs that also tell of his exploits are called the Akritic ballads and are collected as the Akritika: Odes of the Byzantine Border-Guards. Akritas seemed like a good name for a modern day policeman, not defending the borders of an empire of course, but perhaps policing different kinds of borders. His first name came to me when I was having a coffee at the Dioscouri café in Plaka that overlooks the east side of the Agora. One of the streets nearby is called Odos Panos. When I saw the small blue street sign it was love at first sight.
A medieval depiction of Digenis Akritas in action
Are you a fan of any other crime/detective novels set in Greece?
I’ve read a couple of novels by Petros Markaris and several by the Anglo-Greek writer Anne Zouroudi. Both are very good. There are others, but I must confess I’m a big fan of the Italian crime fiction writers, the Neapolitan Maurizio de Giovanni, for example, or the Sicilian Andrea Camilleri, the British writer Michael Dibden whose crime novels are set in various cities in Italy, and the American Donna Leon who has Venice as background for her Commissario Brunetti novels.
What made you start writing crime fiction?
Some years ago my wife thought I might like Camilleri’s Montalbano novels. I did, very much and I ended up binge-reading them. But Dibden was my immediate writerly inspiration. Although he’s British he manages to convey his Italian stories and characters in a remarkably vivid way. I also liked his take on Italian society and manners. I remember thinking I could do the same thing for Athens and although I’ve spent most of my adult life elsewhere, I was actually born there.
What was the inspiration for your first novel, The Sting of the Wasp?
One of the first things that struck me when I returned to Greece in 2013 was how the Greek Civil War from 1946-1950 was still present in so many ways, small monuments, history texts, people’s memories, and political discourse. Although Sting of the Wasp is not mainly about the civil war it was what got me thinking about the plot that eventually made up the substance of the novel.
Small monument near the police headquarters on Alexandras Avenue put up by the Greek anti-Nazi partisans and communists to remember the “December days” in 1944, which was a prelude to the Civil War that broke out a year later
What do you hope readers will find in your work? What is your favourite reader comment so far?
I want to write about the real Greece, not the tourist brochure Greece. The city of Athens is a fascinating and complicated place and it seems to me that writing about its reality gives both Greeks and non-Greeks a more vivid picture of what’s it’s like. My favourite reader comment came from an American who read Sting of the Wasp and wrote to say that when he finally visited Athens my book had given him a better appreciation of the place.
Are you writing something new? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
My new Panos Akritas mystery is called Three Sisters and it involves the murder of a renowned chef who owns a two Michelin star restaurant in wealthy Kifissia and is found stabbed to death with one of his own kitchen knives. All the evidence points to his youngest daughter Zoë. But Captain Akritas has his doubts. I think, more than anything else, it's a novel about appetite. Enough said.
In Dead Letter, Panos is dreaming of his Greek island holiday. Is that something you do?
Yes, absolutely. I love the Ionian islands, Cephalonia, Zante, Corfu and so on. In the Aegean, I tend to stay away from the very touristy islands. I like Sifnos because of the food and great atmosphere. Folegrandos in the Cyclades is relaxed and not crowded. I’d love to visit Rhodes in the future and your island too, Jennifer, Tilos.
Thank you! And now for two excerpts from Dead Letter:
1: Pursued in the ruins of Rhamnous
After a few minutes he saw them. Four men in a line with MP7 type submachine guns, picking their way carefully up the slope. Here they come, he thought. He was on their left. If he stayed where he was, the point man would pass fifteen metres from his position. Too close. He needed to move. But where? Staying low, he moved at an angle further to their left. He kept the buckthorn bushes and stunted trees between him and his hunters. He found a hollow with some cover.
When the men had passed, he set off towards what he assumed were Kato Souli and Schinias. “Not sure where the fuck I’m going,” he murmured to himself. He was sweating profusely as the sun’s rays came at him like an attack of razor blades.
When he reached the church, he rested. It was past noon, so the east side gave some relief from the sun. Problem was he couldn’t spot his pursuers from there. As time passed, he lost all sense of their movements. He listened for sounds but the cicadas were putting up such a racket that he might as well be deaf. Why wouldn’t they search the vicinity of the church? Of course they would. He realised that they would not think he was in the church. Killing him would be too easy there. But would they have to check just to make sure? They’d certainly come around to his side eventually. Before that happened, he would have to move. But where? Straight ahead and slightly to his left there was thick underbrush, large boulders and small gnarled trees. They wouldn’t give much cover but it was better than cowering by the church wall awaiting his executioners. If they were smart they’d come round both ends, hoping to trap him in the middle. He knew he had to move. Now.
He sprinted straight for the underbrush and dived in before anyone rounded the corners. He hid himself in the bushes as well as he could and watched the church wall where he’d been resting. He didn’t have long to wait. The four men split up and two suddenly appeared at each end of the wall, guns in firing position. They looked around at the surrounding shrubs and trees. One said something and the four walked carefully to the front of the church. It looked to Akritas that they entered. This was his moment to escape. He broke cover and was at least a hundred and fifty metres from the church when the four men emerged, glanced around, and waited. They hadn’t seen him. Akritas was hidden among shrubs and rocks. He let out his breath when he saw them confer and head off in a different direction, guns ready. He rose crouching and began to creep crab-like away from the church towards the east.
After an hour, he came across what looked like an ancient marble wall set in the hillside. He looked around. It was obviously an archaeological site, although it was clearly not being excavated, had not been excavated for several years. “Fucking Euro crisis,” he said out loud to a stunted cypress tree nearby. The heat’s getting to me. I’m talking to the fucking trees. “Rhamnous,” he said under his breath, the acropolis of Rhamnous.
2: The bonds of friendship
The next night, Katarina, her sister, Greg and Katia, Valia and Akritas reserved a big table at Rythmos Stage, a club in Ilioupoli, a south Athens suburb. They heard a Cretan band, Chainides, play the superb and inspiring music of that ancient island with wonderfully wry political commentary by the leader, Dimitris Apostolakis, who also did duty on the Cretan lyre. They played until past two in the morning to a packed house. It was a foot-stomping good time. It was defiant, funny, sad, and the entire audience realised somewhere around one o’clock they all shared something in common. Not only a love of their country’s music, or the joyful fellowship of comrades even if it was only for a few hours, or even everyone getting tipsy together on the wine, the beer and the Cutty Sark, not only those things, but something more important. Katarina mentioned it in her thoughtful way as they drove back to the centre. They were a people and they all shared a common fate. It was the truth of what it means to be a nation. The poignancy was not lost on them after six long years of the debt crisis.
As they drove into the centre, the six friends were not ready for the evening to end. It was now about three in the morning. As it was the end of July, the night was warm and many people were still out talking, drinking and just happily walking about. Living joyfully was not yet a dead letter among the Greeks even in a dark time. Akritas suggested the St George terrace in Plateia Karytsi for a nightcap. It would be quiet there under the walls of the big church. When they arrived, the bar was closing, but the very small café next door was still open. Akritas and Greg pulled a couple of tables together so that the friends could all sit as one. The walls of the church reminded him of St Paul and his crisis of faith. That moment is one we all must face in our different ways. Even a nation must face doubt when it loses faith in itself. But perhaps only for a short time.