Title: The Black Monastery
Author: Stav Sherez
Publisher: Faber 
Length: 299 pages
After 33 years in Athens Nikos has returned to the fictional Greek island of Palassos to see out his remaining time in the police force as the island’s police chief. But rather than slide slowly into retirement Nikos has to deal with some grizzly murders that hark back to awful events which occurred when he was last on the island. Kitty Carson, a successful crime writer (and the only character to warrant both a first name and a surname if my memory serves me correctly) is holidaying on the island, as is Jason, an aspiring writer who has followed Kitty in a vaguely stalker-ish manner.
For me this was a book about the past and how time doesn’t really pass into nothing-ness but rather builds up in thin layers which, eventually, have to be burrowed through or they’ll bury you. All of the characters, including the island itself, have secrets or events in their histories that have some hold over the way their current lives are playing out and Sherez unravels these threads in a tantalising way. With a Dan Brown style thriller I tend to hastily turn the pages to find out what will happen next, whereas here it was a case of reading on to find out what had happened before. I was no less gripped than I am by more conventional thrillers but because the major events being described have, for the most part, already taken place I found myself more willing to take a little time with my reading and savour the delicious, metaphor-laden language for its own sake. Although Sherez demonstrates he is no slouch in the suspense department either with his genuinely page-turning conclusion.
The book is jam-packed with strong images: some beautiful, others gruesome. I’m consciously less fond of centipedes now than I was two days ago thanks to several descriptions of their particular creepiness. Then there’s the disturbing picture created by these simple lines, which describe the scene facing Nikos as he enters an annexe of the police station (formerly the island’s church) filled with broken statues
He stares at this strange gathering, the saints missing arms or legs like crash victims, their beatific expressions covered by a thick layer of dust. The Marys stare open-eyed into the blackness. Three of them, different sizes, all missing hands or feet.
There are, quite literally, dozens more passages which have created lasting pictures in my head, several of which may, I fear, inhabit my nastier dreams for some time.
I’m not surprised Sherez chose to set his story on a fictional island as I suspect the Greek Tourism Board might have banned him permanently from the country had he assigned all Palassos’ attributes to one of the real islands. Not only is there a mysterious religious cult and a history of gruesome murders but the depiction of the dance-clubbing, drug-popping somewhat desperate young tourists that throng to the island overshadow the glorious Mediterranean sunshine or anything else of a positive nature that might be on offer. At a different level he also shows the worst side of the island’s regular inhabitants, including authorities willing to use people’s prejudices to hide truths and perpetrate lies. It certainly isn’t a place I want to visit any time soon.
For me the characters are less successful than the other elements of the book. They’re not badly crafted or unbelievable, although of all the characters I found writer Kitty the least convincing as she switched a bit too suddenly from indecisive and troubled to investigator-in-control. More than that though I didn’t react very emotionally at all to any of the major characters which meant I missed out on that strong connection that only a much loved or fiercely hated character can bring to a reading experience. Perhaps this stems from the fact the book is a standalone so the author didn’t feel a need to create characters that would engender more of an emotional response from readers. Of course he might have tried very hard to create a sympathetic character or two and I just didn’t respond in that way. I was certainly curious to find out what would happen (or had happened) to all the players but I was never at risk of bursting into tears should one of them fall victim to the murderer.
I had never heard of Stav Sherez before selecting this book from those available for review for the month based solely on the fact it is set in Greece and I don’t recall ever having read any crime fiction set there before. I thoroughly enjoyed starting a book having no idea what to expect and was delighted with what I found. For me the writing itself is the star of the show. On multiple occasions I re-read phrases and sentences, often aloud, purely because I liked the way the words sounded together. Combined with the intriguing plot (including an ending I did not see coming) this made for a very satisfying reading experience.
My rating 4/5
Reviewed at It’s a Crime (Or a Mystery)
Sherez has written one other standalone crime fiction novel called The Devil’s Playground.