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The Last Red Death

Republished by MIRA UK in April 2009.

ANOTHER AWARD FOR PAUL!

In July 2004, The Last Red Death won the prestigious Sherlock Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year, beating acclaimed novelists Peter Robinson and Robert Wilson, who were also shortlisted. It was a tremendous honour for Paul to receive the award from previous-winner Mark Billingham at London’s Crime on Store bookshop. Among other winners present were P.D. James, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre.

2004 also saw the publication of the Greek translation of the book. To the author’s considerable relief, it has received widespread and very favourable coverage from the Greek media. Paul has done radio and TV interviews, as well a wide range of newspaper and magazine features. Most encouraging of all, the Greek press has treated the book as a serious contribution to the history of terrorism, giving particular approval to the link between the Second World War and the subsequent violence. Readers of Greek will find major articles in Ta Nea (www.dolnet.gr) Eleftherotypia (www.enet.gr) and Ethnos (www.e-go.gr) - request Paul Johnston in the sites’ search (anazitisi) engines.

Author's Introduction

Second books in series present some awkward problems for the author. On the one hand, you feel under pressure to consolidate your new characters and locations by giving the reader more of the same. On the other, as with every book, you feel the need to spread your wings and create something completely different. Inevitably, given the nature of the market, you end up making a compromise. But it’s probably fair to say that The Last Red Death is more adventurous than most second-in-a-series books.

For a start, it’s much more of a thriller than a straight crime novel. Without getting into interminable arguments about how to define a thriller, I would say that thrillers place the main characters in greater jeopardy than crime novels, and that pace of narrative is what readers are primarily looking for in a thriller. I hope I’ve achieved both of those, with Alex Mavros hunting a terrorist who’s hunting him at the same - and they’re both being hunted by other conspirators. But what interested me even more about the thriller format is that it often revolves around issues of politics, more specifically international intrigue - geopolitics, if you like. As readers of my Quint Dalrymple series set in a futuristic, Orwellian Edinburgh know, politics is a subject I have a lot of time for.

Crying Blue Murder, the first in the Mavros series, was less political than the Quint novels, at least on the surface. In fact, it dealt with questions of individuals and society as much as any of my novels, but it did so in a highly restricted setting - the family vendetta that defines the lives of many characters on the small island of Trigono stems from atrocities committed in the Second World War. I was deliberately trying to focus on that most significant feature of Greek life, the family. And, as most people know, there’s as much politics in most families as in any other social unit. In The Last Red Death I have retained family issues - Mavros finds that his long-lost brother is connected to the terrorist Iraklis, while his client Grace Helmer is haunted by her father’s assassination at his hands - but I have also tried to give the reader an idea of the way that individuals were caught up in national and international politics. Again, the starting point is the Second World War, and its devastating effect on Greece. The contemporary characters, even those born long after the war, are still affected by the events of the 1940s. This is another angle on one of the major themes of Crying Blue Murder - the power that history exerts, particularly in a country like Greece that has more history than it can handle.

The thread that runs back through the years in The Last Red Death is terrorism. I wrote the book in the year after the attack on the Twin Towers and there’s no question that I wanted to address the major event of our times. However, the inspiration for the book was actually not September 9, but another date, November 17. Students of modern Greek history will know that the country was plagued for over twenty-five years by a terrorist organisation with that name. There were assassinations of politicians, businessmen, a CIA station chief, and then, in June 2000, of the British military attaché Brigadier Stephen Saunders. The striking thing for a crime writer was that no member of the self-proclaimed revolutionary organisation November 17 had ever been captured, leading to suspicions that people in high places were covering up for them. I wrote The Last Red Death as a contribution to the debate about terrorism, concentrating on the characters’ motivations. My basic premise was that, unlike serial killers, terrorists are no different from the rest of us, are subject to the same emotions as we all are - love, hate, loyalty, passion and so on. And in order to understand them, we have to strive to understand both their psychological make-up and the historical events that have driven them to kill their fellow men and women.

It could be said that these are weighty matters, too weighty for a crime novelist to deal with. Well, the every reader must make their own judgement about that. I have tried to be even-handed, showing the struggles of people from across the political and social spectrum. Of course, dealing fictionally with events that have given great sorrow to many people in real life requires sensitivity. That’s why I stressed in my Afterword that I have the deepest sympathy for the victims of terrorism and their families. But understanding is the key - we can’t bury our heads in the sand about the issue or allow hatred to rule our actions. The situation in Iraq and the continuing global terrorist threat make those options untenable.

When I finished the novel in early summer 2002, I felt rather apprehensive even though I’d made my terrorist organisation as different from the real one as I could. After all, November 17 was still at large and they’d shown no reticence in targeting foreign targets in the past. Then a man carrying a bomb to the port of Piraeus was injured and caught when it went off prematurely. Within weeks the Greek authorities, who had been helped by the British and Americans after Brigadier Saunders’s death, had arrested numerous suspects. As I write, and as The Last Red Death is being translated into Greek, the trial of the terrorists is underway. I was often complimented on my skills of prophecy in the Quint novels, but this is all getting a bit close to the bone...

Another aim of the book was to take Mavros to different locations in Greece. Although I have lived on a Cycladic island for years, the area that I first lost my heart to as a callow tourist guide in the 1970s was the Peloponnese. Split from the rest of the mainland by the Corinth Canal, the Peloponnese is the heartland of Greek myth and history, its varied landscapes giving the traveller visions of unparalleled grandeur. Mavros and Grace Helmer find themselves in the far south, in the almost medieval Mani with its tiny churches and blasted mountainsides. During the Second World War, the area, once ruled by ancient Sparta, was ravaged by Axis and collaborationist Greek forces on the hunt for Communist guerilla bands. The book ends at Tainaron, the entrance to the underworld in myth, where Hercules dragged Cerberus to the surface. Mavros and Grace also spend time in Argolidha, the area containing Mycenae and Tiryns, as well as the beautiful modern town of Nafplion, with its Venetian fortifications and domed former mosques. And the action takes place in winter - another aim of mine in this series is to subvert the standard tourist idea of Greece as a place where the sun constantly shines. In The Last Red Death, there’s more snow than sunshine.

So there it is, Alex Mavros’s second case. Is it a crime novel? Is it a thriller? Does it go where no books about Greece have gone before? Does it give a new slant on a major contemporary issue? Or is it just a quick and undemanding beach read? Only you, dear reader, can say. Let me know what you think via the e-mail link. And if you want to know more about Greece, the books I list in the Afterword are as good a place to start as any.

Mass Market Paperback ISBN 978 07783 02995 published by MIRA in April 2009
Greek Edition ISBN 9608202817 Ekdoseis Periplous, 2004
Unabridged audio - read by Stephen Thorne ISBN 185903750X Magna Story Sound 2004
Translations - Greek, Dutch, Czech

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