One of the joys of doing this blog is that you often find yourself reading books you wouldn’t normally pick up. Anne Zouroudi’s The Feast of Artemis nestles further towards the ‘cosy’ end of the spectrum than I’m used to, but its clever storytelling and mysterious protagonist drew me into what was a deceptively sharp tale.
The olive harvest is drawing to a close in the town of Dendra, and when Hermes Diaktoros arrives for the celebratory festival he expects an indulgent day of food and wine. But as young men leap a blazing bonfire in feats of daring, one of them is badly burned. Did he fall, or was he pushed? Then, as Hermes learns of a deep-running feud between two families, one of their patriarchs dies. Determined to find out why, Hermes follows a bitter trail through the olive groves to reveal a motive for murder, and uncovers a dark deed brought to light by the sin of gluttony.
This is the seventh tale featuring Zouroudi’s corpulent hero, Hermes Diaktoros, and she has arrived at the final deadly sin: gluttony. The writing is crisp and tidy and evocative of mediterranean colour and heat, as you’d expect – the descriptions of food and drink make you want to start swigging from a bottle of olive oil – but beneath the tranquility, Zouroudi’s Greece is far from the idyllic paradise you’d expect.
The citizens of Dendra are suspended uneasily between the old ways and the new – the plot revolves around traditional versus modern methods of olive oil production – and gentle references to poverty, decline, protest and the scapegoating of immigrants are embedded in the story, reflecting the problems faced by the region.
There are a number of crimes in the story – they tend to occur off-stage – and in the beginning it’s difficult to get a sense of which incident, if any, Hermes is investigating… an accident in which a young man is badly burned, the death of a patriarch from a heart attack or a poisoning. Hermes is an amiable, polite character, looping around town seemingly at random, striking up conversations.
Zouradi has said she’s a writer of morality tales, and it becomes clear that the fat man, as he’s called in the prose, has a holistic approach to detection. More than anything, the enigmatic and judgmental Hermes reminds me of JB Priestley’s mysterious Inspector Goole. There’s a stern benevolence about him, something of the other, as he calls people to account for their behavior, and he has an eye on the bigger picture. All the citizens of Dendra are in some way implicated in events, and what Hermes is keen to encourage – using both carrot and stick – is a bit of good, old-fashoned moral responsibiiity.
His drunkard half-brother Dino, and his smart-clothing and weakness for fine food, proves that Hermes is very much of this earth, but he informs anyone who asks that he works for the Higher Authorities. And there are hints that when the accused refuse to take responsibility for their actions, these higher authorities will do it for them. Hermes was, of course, the messenger of the gods, and perhaps they’re still looking down in judgment.
And so Zouroudi has used up all the seven deadly sins – she’s written seven books now – but it seems unthinkable that the fat man will not continue to travel around the sun-scorched islands in this popular series.
What I liked: Hermes’s influence touches everybody he meets, in sometimes unexpected ways. With his ever-expanding waistline and fine clothes and pristine tennis shoes, he stands out from the crowd. He loves the finest things in life, food, clothes, wine, and he is endlessly interested in people.
One way to anchor your novel is to make your protagonist someone extraordinary, someone you’d want to meet and share a bottle or two of wine with, and someone who is active. Real life is dull, we read to escape – make your characters big.
Thanks to Cecilia Keating at Midas PR for the review copy of The Feast Of Artemis.