Greek financial tragedy turned into fiction

Murders at the heart of Petros Markaris’ new book echo the fury felt towards Greece’s tax-dodging elite. Markaris’ novel tells of a serial killer stalking the wealthy suburbs of Athens for rich Greek victims who have failed to pay their taxes.

The murders at the heart of Markaris’s new book, I Pairaiosi, or The Settlement, resonate strongly with a mass readership furious at the country’s tax-dodging elite whose fecklessness has helped bring Greece to its knees. Many readers, like its hero-narrator, Inspector Costas Haritos, are torn between disgust and sneaking admiration for the murderer, who calls himself the National Tax Collector, and who is demanding money not for himself but for the national coffers. Such was the public sympathy for the killer that Markaris found it prudent to put a note on the book’s back cover saying: “Warning: This novel is not to be imitated.”

“I wanted to tell the real story of how this crisis has developed and how it affects ordinary people,” Markaris said in an interview at his Athens flat. He said crime writing provided the best form of social and political commentary available, because so much of what was going on in Greece now was criminal.

“The title had a meaning in ancient Greek which meant the end of life, the settling of life’s account,” the 75-year-old author said. “But its modern meaning is a method of raising tax revenue. In return for a payment to the tax office – a settlement – the state gives amnesty to people who haven’t paid their taxes.”

Later in the book, when Inspector Haritos is called on to look into the murders of rich Athenians, his first instinct is concern that any investigation exposing the private affairs of the elite could endanger his expected promotion. He struggles to feel sympathy with the victims, observing of the first, a famous surgeon: “Before opening up his patients with a scalpel, he would open their wallet.”

On discovering the self-proclaimed National Tax Collector’s motives, Haritos notes drily that if all the country’s tax cheats were murdered the population would be reduced to some “wage-earners, the unemployed and housewives”.

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