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It is said that you should write about what you know and this is something I agree with, having read some inadequately researched plot points in novels where I have better knowledge than the author. But I'll also admit to a tendency to groan when I read that a crime novel involves a writer or writers, or more specifically a crime fiction writer. I imagine "boring". The first time I shot myself down in flames on this was on reading John Colapinto's About the Author, which proved to be a very fine novel. There have been similar occasions since, but I still held my prejudices and innate ability to groan. Now, this year, up comes Stav Sherez's The Black Monastery from Faber which features a case to solve, a copper, an established crime fiction writer, and an ambitious "would-be" crime writer, all on the fictional Greek island of Palassos, which is hell rather than paradise unless experienced under the influence of a legal or illegal substance, in which case hell and the users' own creation of hell is not appreciated.
So, yes, I did groan, but then I started reading and had another Colapinto experience x 3 or so: The Black Monastery is a fine addition to the canon of UK written crime fiction and is a great read. It's deftly plotted and another of those novels in which the setting also becomes a character.
Nikos is a reluctant investigator in some ways because he has his own personal secrets to hide and longs for the retirement that beckons, having been elbowed into serving the last couple of years of his job on the island of his original home and remembering the early days of his early career. But the murder of a young boy on the island echoes that of a case some thirty years ago in too many ways and Nikos is forced to revisit the past.
To complicate matters, Kitty Carson, a successful UK crime fiction writer arrives on the island at about the same time as the murder, seeking respite from her greying marriage and life. Such people can't avoid the curiosity and need to delve into a real life case. Ahead of her on the island is her would-be disciple Jason, who longs for her to read and critique his draft novel. Their union and subsequent activities, after Jason's engineering of their connection prompt difficulties in Nikos's investigation.
This novel includes many deaths for various reasons, so it's not just the current boy's murder that draws you in. All the characters feel real and do the same. A novel sub-title of "paradise can be murder" is as assured as the Heinz beans brand: it delivers what it says on the label. Here, we have the main plot of murders and a delve into the potential destruction of "paradise" in our times. The fictional island of island of Palassos is reflected in its current state through the eyes of Kitty who sought respite and refuge and didn't find it, as well as in Nikos who observes a sad decline over thirty years. Palassos, for all its beauty, has become a tourist attraction and hence the recipient and continual domestic cleaner of high revellers' deposits of involuntary vomits and voluntary trash. Noise is also a pervader of peace and tranquility, although the coffee remains good.
The plotting of this novel is of the "belt and braces" variety and I challenge you to work out "whodunnit" before Nikos. The book also garners a deep emotional response; it's hard not to feel both fury and grief at its realistic end.
The Black Monastery is a novel to be enjoyed but not too quickly; thus taking in every piece of prose, because every little thing matters here and it all adds colour. As a result of reading this novel, I immediately ordered a copy of his first crime fiction venture: The Devil's Playground. Here's one line to give you a sample of the writing style:
She swivels her fingers like an ex-smoker whose amputated limb of a cigarette still holds a phantom twinge.
Stav Sherez has a new website here, which has a blogging activity so do take a look and keep up to date with the author.