How does the first world wrap its head around third-world problems, let alone crises like the outpouring of refugees (millions of people) looking for sanctuary and a new home, a fresh start? How do we begin to imagine the day-to-day suffering and the complicated global politics that manipulate and control the exodus? How do we begin to comprehend around the various entities that exploit the families, drain them of their last bit of money and what’s left of their dignity?
Published earlier this year, the fourth entry in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series, A Dangerous Crossing, tackled the complexities of the refugee crisis and focused on the fate of a young Canadian volunteer named Audrey Clare. Audrey disappears from the island of Lesvos and is implicated in a double murder. One victim is a French Interpol agent and the other a Syrian refugee. A Dangerous Crossing is loaded with issues, both Esa Khattak’s internal challenges with his Muslim faith and Esa and Rachel’s efforts to understand how politics and money collude to manipulate families making desperate crossings to unknown lands.
Lesvos is also the setting for the ninth entry in Jeffrey Siger’s Andreas Kaldis series, An Aegaen April. Please ignore the bucolic evocation of the title, and its pleasant alliteration, and prepare yourself for an equally complex and nuanced mystery that uses the plight of the refugees as a flashpoint for trouble and, quite naturally, mystery.
Khan’s series started with two Toronto-centric mysteries before flying far afield for the third, Among the Ruins, set largely in Iran. So the shift to the Greek islands (and various settings from The Netherlands to Belgium) didn’t seem that much of a stretch for Esa Khattak or Rachel Getty.
But for Andreas Kaldis, who is Chief Inspector for the Greek National Police Force’s Special Crimes Division and by job necessity an island hopper (Murder on Mykonos, Prey on Patmos, etc.), an unusual murder on Lesvos is a natural lure. And Siger, who spends half his time in Greece, brings a local’s sharp eye to the details, the politics, and the criminal justice bureaucracy.
The victim at the outset of An Aegean April is an influential guy named Mihalis Volandes. He’s a seventy-year-old Greek shipping tycoon. His death is, well, both vivid and shocking. He’s been sliced in half. Vertically. “Neck to crotch.” One swipe of a sword.
When Kaldis is informed over the telephone of the murderer’s methods, Kaldis says, wrly, “Run that by me again.” Kaldis often says out loud what we’re all thinking. He’s jaded, weary, and not given to histrionics. He lives in a zone that is free of melodrama.
Dana McLaughlin is in charge of refugee operators on Lesvos for an organization called SafePassage and, over the phone, tells Chief Inspector Kaldis that one of her refugee workers has been arrested for Volandes’ murder. The worker is a ‘native refugee worker,’ someone who wanted to help his fellow countrymen. His name is Ali Sera. He’s been found spattered with blood.
At first, Kaldis opts to call the shots remotely and sends his longtime sidekick, the “bull-like man” Yianni, to do the initial investigation. Some of An Aegean April unfolds through Yianni’s eyes (and other characters, including our vicious bad guy; Dana; and even Ali, who has spent much of his life “looking up from the bottom of the refugee barrel”).
Despite the brutality of the killer and the rough conditions for refugees who make it to Lesvos, there is plenty of appealing Greek island scenery, You will want to dive into the water, smell the air, and reach for a bottle of ouzo while you savor the atmosphere. But Siger sees the warts, too—the overpopulation, the graffiti, the “uninspired concrete apartment buildings with their ubiquitous slab-sided balconies that plagued all of modern Greece, no matter how well-off the neighborhood.”
Well, how could the world address the refugee crisis in a more human manner? It turns out that Mihalis Volandes had a plan and it’s in laying out that plan, half way through the story, that Siger shows his hand and seems to be floating (ahem) a suggestion. The plan envisions ferryboat-size ships with medical, social, and immigration services processing refugees in a way that gives traffickers no chance to prey on the weak and desperate. Volandes’ plan to inject decency and humanity in the middle of mayhem is what gets him killed. You don’t interrupt someone else’s evil, lucrative business without consequences.
Nobody’s whistle clean. The media are jabbed and so are interloping do-gooders who only stay long enough so they can say they were there. It’s Dana who sums up the “sad reality” of the competing interests. “Crisis brings media attention,” she says. “Media attention brings openhearted people who translate into money. Along with money come profiteers who don’t give a serious shit about the people in crisis. They’re only interested in their own image and fundraising. Slick PR and sound bites draw in the donations, and for them, that’s all that matters.”
An Aegean April takes us to Turkey (the sword-wielding assassin makes an impression at a key meeting) and doesn’t stop until it reveals the wide variety of pressures that bear down on what was once a placid, quiet island. Our killer has gone rogue, he’s turned the tables on his employers, and developed an idea for a brutal bit of theatrics. But he’s not the only one staging a movie-ready, tense showdown.
Want to learn a little something about the massive, ongoing exodus from Syria (now in its eighth year)? Yes, read the newspaper or watch videos on the web. (And don’t be caught flat-footed when somebody mentions a city named Aleppo.) Or read An Aegean April.
Previously reviewed: A Dangerous Crossing