The Feast of Artemis is the seventh novel that Anne Zouroudi has written about her mysterious amateur detective Hermes Diaktoros. It’s only the second of the series that I’ve read – I completed The Messenger of Athens last year, shortly after hearing Zouroudi speak at a crime writers’ evening held at the offices of Bloomsbury, her publisher – so I now have the very great pleasure of being able to look forward to devouring the other five. I shall buy them as soon as I can.
I find the quality of Zouroudi’s writing almost haunting. It is classic in that it belongs to the oldest European literary tradition of all, that which has Homer himself sitting at its head. I’ve written elsewhere about how Zouroudi’s intensely poetical yet austerely precise descriptions of the Greek landscape remind me of Homer’s own accounts of the Greek islands in The Odyssey, which, more than two millennia after they were conceived, still amaze with their freshness. The Feast of Artemis also contains such evocative passages, but Zouroudi – always reinventing herself within the universe that she has created – in this novel focuses especially on describing food. The clue, though, is in the title: as the reader is aware, Artemis is the feisty goddess of hunting; in Greek mythology, she at various times exacts retribution, and in the novel terrible things are done in her name, some with unforeseen and unintended consequences.
Just as beneath this glittering, sun-drenched paradise lives the peasant community of Dendra, whose members are tarnished with all the human vices, so concealed within their sumptuous festive meals lurk danger and destruction. Food is both the bringer of life and the harbinger of death in this novel. The finely-drawn characters, whilst naturally displaying none of the urbanity of Diaktoros himself, show both cunning and a taste for revenge that matches that of the gods of old.
The central plot concerns a generations-long feud between two olive-growing families. A cycle of vengeance and retaliation results in the death of the patriarch of one of these families and the mutilation by fire of a youth from the other. One of the book’s many masterly touches consists of a kind of tightening of the screw as the plot unfolds: we are told early on that the youth has been burnt, but the full significance of this is not revealed until the closing stages. The small clouds that hover over the sunny landscape right from the beginning grow darker as the novel progresses and the effects of evil are revealed.
Yet such is the author’s subtlety that none of the characters in The Feast of Artemis is evil through and through. The publisher has placed it within the crime genre, probably correctly, but it belongs to that relatively small group of distinguished crime novels that can be read on more than one level. Fundamentally, it is a book about the human condition. Although Hermes was the messenger of the gods, and Hermes Diaktoros, in his guise as moral arbiter, shares some of his namesake’s characteristics, he is also a modern-day Zeus, swooping down, not in anger, but with a kind of sadly humorous wisdom, as he conducts his inexorable quest to get at the truth and show the perpetrators of the crimes the errors of their ways. That he himself has foibles is a stroke of genius: in a place where life and death are governed by food, he is continually tempted by delicacies that threaten his own well-being because he is already overweight. It also emerges that he is brave to eat some of the food that he is offered, knowing as he already does that those providing it are guilty of introducing poison to their seemingly delicious comestibles. Yet he is nimble on his tennis-shoe-clad feet and has a brain of quicksilver. That he is not perfect lends authority to his perspicacity and ensures that it is not marred by overt moralising. Another fine touch is the introduction of his brother Dino, who is as much a slave to wine as Hermes is to food: Dino – the echo of the name is surely intentional – plays Dionysius to his Zeus. (I’m not sure whether Dino also appears in some of the five novels that I haven’t yet read: my guess is that this is not his first appearance in Zouroudi’s oeuvre.)
At the end of the book, resolution is achieved, but at a price. Peace is brought to the community of Dendra, but it is made clear that its inhabitants will continue to bear the scars – and in some cases, to pay custodial penalties – for their wrongdoing. Hermes Diaktoros himself, having arranged to pay for the best plastic surgery that money can buy for the damaged youth from his own seemingly bottomless yet inexplicably acquired funds, simply melts away. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world – until, we hope, the next time that his intervention is required.
If you haven’t yet read Anne Zouroudi, you should; you will find her compelling command of the Greek ‘idyll’ as stuffed with flavour and irony as the roasted lamb from the fire pits of her opening chapters in this book.
I’d like to thank Anne Zouroudi for nominating me as one of her choices when she completed the ‘Next Big Thing’ questions. I am a keen admirer of Anne’s novels and also greatly respect her as a writer with a genuine desire to help less established authors than herself. Most readers of this blog will already be familiar with the ‘Next Big Thing’, a blog-hop that spreads the news about what new book authors are working on, via a common set of ten questions. So here I go:
What’s the title of your next book?
It’s Almost Love, to be published in June 2013. There is more information about it here.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
It came partly from the extraordinary venue used for a conference that I attended – a house that had once been owned by Liberace – and partly from my discovery of an unlikely liaison between two people I know.
What genre does your book fall under?
It is a crime novel. Elaine Aldred has kindly described me as a ‘literary’ crime writer. I don’t really like categorising books, but, as a Salt writer, I do try to pay as much attention to the characters and the language that I use as to the plot.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
It depends on which characters! Rupert Penry-Jones fits the bill almost exactly for DI Yates; Franka Potente would be excellent as Katrin; Ralph Fiennes would play Guy Maichment, one of the villains, to perfection.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The disappearance of an elderly eminent female archaeologist and the simultaneous, but apparently unrelated, start of an illicit love affair between two colleagues together set off a chain of events that results in several murders; as the aspirations of a macabre right wing political group are also re-ignited, catastrophe threatens.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Like In the Family, it will be published by Salt Publishing. I don’t have an agent. I’m proud to be a Salt author.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I’m still tidying it up in places. I started writing it when on holiday in France in August 2011.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
That’s a very difficult question! I honestly haven’t read anything that resembles it much, partly because, as with In the Family, the South Lincolnshire setting is very important. I suppose it could be described as Michael Dibdin meets Henning Mankell in South Lincs, though that sounds terribly pretentious and more than a little absurd!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
It was always my intention to write several DI Yates stories. The first seeds of Almost Love were sown by a telephone conversation; it was a piece of gossip, really.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I’ve taken a lot of trouble with the archaeological background, which is inspired in part by the existence of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, a fascinating three-centuries-old organisation. Readers who’ve already met Tim Yates may be intrigued by some additional complications in his personal life.
I’d now like to pass the Next Big Thing baton to Laura Joyce, a fellow Salt author who has greatly impressed me with her debut novel, The Museum of Atheism.