The Invisible

Written by Peter Papathanasiou

Review written by Denise Danks

Denise Danks lives in London. She is a former journalist and managing director of a technology news agency. . She wrote the Georgina Powers series of crime novels, two of which were shortlisted for the CWA Macallan Gold Dagger 1999/2000.

The Invisible
Maclehose Press
RRP: £16.00
Released: September 01, 2022

To say that I was looking forward to Peter Papathanasiou’s second novel The Invisible is an understatement. The Stoning, his first novel featuring his Australian Greek protagonist, DS George Manolis, was widely praised as a ‘gripping outback noir’. It was longlisted for the 2021 CWA Gold Dagger Award and the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger. Not bad going for a novice crime writer.

I love a good noir tale of bad things happening to bad people and, since my late mother was Greek, I was looking forward to the setting in Papathanasiou’s birthplace, the Greek ‘outback’ of the Prespas region.  This part of the North Eastern Greek interior comprises lakes, high mountains and half-forgotten villages on the borders of Albania and North Macedonia. Tourists go there to hike. Traffickers frequent it to smuggle guns, contraband and people. There are bears in the woods.

Manolis, recently divorced and bereaved, departs Australia on an enforced vacation to the old country, hoping to reconnect with his Greek roots and carry out his dying father’s wish. Manolis is also suffering from understandable guilt following his shooting of an unarmed innocent teenage boy that features in the finale of The Stoning.

He is welcomed by his old friend, Stavros, another Australian Greek, who lives in the town of Florina, near the village of Glikonero by Lake Prespas, from where Stavros’ tenant and friend, the mysterious ‘Lefty’ is missing. Manolis is roped in to investigate. 

Lefty, a moniker we are told that is short for Lefteris (Eleftherios, actually) is an ‘invisible’, someone with no official record that he exists - no bank account, no ID, no known family etc. The apathetic corrupt police and some locals believe Lefty has legged it while others suspect foul play.

A promising inciting incident shows Lefty trying to sell a mysterious bag of whatnots to some tricky geezers who prove to be trickier than Lefty expects.

One would have hoped that the tale would inexorably lead back to this moment. Instead, Manolis wearily conducts a piecemeal investigation while ‘undercover’.(Stavros introduces him to the villagers as a builder pal whom he has employed to fix up Lefty’s ramshackle house for him.) Manolis questions the villagers in turn like a fatally underpowered Poirot.

Lefty, as it happens, was not universally admired. He had a penchant for perpetrating annoying pranks on people but, more importantly, he owed a lot of money. The latter reason alone, if I know anything about Greeks, would have provoked a much more dynamic search for his whereabouts before Manolis’ arrival.

There are two immigrants, a young Syrian boxer, Zain, and Albanian bar worker, Rosa, both illegals who add a little glamour and excitement. When Manolis asks for their help, they prove shrewder than the detective in almost every way possible. Rosa discovers something in Lefty’s property that Manolis is renovating and has searched five times. Young Zain, despite Manolis describing himself as an experienced police negotiator, proves instantly more persuasive in his interaction with the sullen villagers.

Manolis also repeatedly dwells on some information to no avail yet seems to move on from some quite extraordinary revelations very quickly. For example, some villagers have collections of Nazi insignia and memorabilia on display in their houses. I have never come across this in my travels to the motherland. Although, saying that, my grandmother did possess a German soldier’s fork for practical purposes.

At its best, The Invisible is a travelogue describing the beautiful harsh wilderness in which DS Manolis finds himself. It also offers a brief and harrowing history of its people’s suffering in the Second World War during the Nazi Occupation and its own brutal Civil War that followed. Many children in the region were taken, scattered, stolen and either forced to go north to Communist Yugoslavia or sent for adoption in the West, as Papathanasiou himself was.

Unfortunately, Papathanasiou’s descriptive writing detracts from the telling of a potentially exciting story. After yet another poetic description of flora and fauna, I was reminded of a confession by the late great Colin Dexter, who sadly told his audience that when he read a piece of his prose that he thought was particularly fine, he cut it out. If he didn’t, his wonderful editor, Maria Rejt, would.

I can only compare Manolis to Paul Johnston’s excellent private investigator, Mavros. Johnston lived, worked, married and raised a family in Greece and has the knack, not easy, of using past and present realities of life in his adopted country effectively. Michael Dibdin with his Italian detective, Aurelia Zen, did likewise.

In summary, this is chiefly a novel wanting to be something else - a study in lost identity which Papathanasiou could have written and quite skilfully alludes to. The final denouement, which is really very good, turns on this.

The Invisible falls into “that difficult second album” category. It has a memorable setting, a few interesting characters and when it picks up, as it does, almost at the end and too late, the truth revealed is shocking.


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