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Book facts
The Doctor of Thessaly” by Anne Zouroudi (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown) 258 pages, $24.99.

Fanciful Greek mystery grounded in real humanity

Anne Zouroudi was born and lives in England, but she has also lived in Greece, and it is there that her imagination resides. Zouroudi’s mystery series is set on the Greek islands and founded on a potentially awful idea: a private investigator who is, in fact, the god Hermes, solving crimes based on the Seven Deadly Sins.

Oh, dear. This sounds like any number of vile cozies that revolve around cats, witches, tag sales and cookie recipes. But Zouroudi’s novels are nothing like that. “The Messenger of Athens,” “The Taint of Midas” and now “The Doctor of Thessaly” are not only charming and engrossing stories but also shrewd and often bleak portraits of individual weakness and social fragility.

In each novel, the appropriate sin may be discernible, but her fiction gloriously overspills the frame placed around it, allowing Hermes to become an elusive character, not a gimmick, and Greece to materialize as a textured land, not merely a backdrop.

“The Doctor of Thessaly” is introduced with a verse from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” that begins, “There within / she saw that Envy was intent upon / a meal of viper flesh, the meat that fed her / vice.” The novel opens with an apparent victim of envy fleeing humiliation. A jilted bride stumbles across a rocky shore to the sea, the train of her gown dragging “like a trawl-net, hooking debris left by the high spring tides: brittle kelp and the cap of a beer bottle, ovoid bone of a squid, liquorice smears of marine oil.”

The woman, we soon learn, is Chrissa Kaligi, a mature spinster who was to marry Louis Chabrol, a French doctor recently arrived in her village. But Chabrol has left Chrissa waiting at the altar, a fact that seems to gratify her resentful sister, Noula. When a local shepherd stumbles upon the doctor, who has been blinded with acid, Noula is an obvious suspect – but not too obvious.

Zouroudi is an artfully restrained writer. Her hints are subtle and her plot twists, while satisfying, are never outlandish. In “The Doctor of Thessaly,” as in her previous novels, the crime is dramatic (the doctor’s ruined eyes are “like stone, like marble”) but not sensational. It will ultimately make sense – human as well as dramatic sense – because Zouroudi’s characters and the society she describes are so convincing.

The petty, spiteful village politician; the lonely daughter tending her disabled mother; the fall of darkness on a quiet shore; the silence in an abandoned orchard – this unassuming novel is rich in wonderfully compressed scenes, any one of which might have become a short story. But this is a mystery novel, and Zouroudi creates suspense as elegantly as she does atmosphere.

As always, a taut plot, launched by violence, accelerates smoothly once Hermes Diaktoros appears and begins to ask questions. He’s referred to throughout as “the fat man,” whose “curly, graying hair was a little too long, and whose glasses gave him an air of academia.” He wears “tennis shoes – old fashioned, canvas shoes, pristinely white.” The shoes, along with other details, are sly winks from Zouroudi because this amiable detective is the winged-shoed herald and messenger of the gods (although shaped more like Hercule Poirot).

Subplots add depth to Zouroudi’s portrait of modern rural Greece as a harsh place where the ancient world is still glimpsed, a world that Hermes revisits.

“Ruins lay all about him,” Zouroudi writes of one such site, “the sad remains of ancient walls. ... At a distance from the ancient city, were a number of gravestones marking the limits of a cemetery whose greater part now lay under the sea. ... (Each) bore a name and a single word: Xhaire – Be happy. At one grave, he bent and ran his fingers over the name, then patted the stone as if in affection, or gentle reproach.”

With a similarly light touch, Zouroudi pays homage to the Greek past as she transports us, in these charming novels, to the country’s troubled present.

Anna Mundow wrote this review for Washington Post Book World.

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