Some people envision moving to a Greek island as the ultimate dream retirement plan. Jeff Siger went there to reinvent himself, leaving behind his lucrative New York law practice to set up his writing desk on the island of Mykonos. And with great results. The first two books in his Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series, Murder in Mykonos and Assassins of Athens, have found worldwide readership and reached the top of the Greek bestseller lists.
Writing of the first novel in the series, Murder in Mykonos, a Publishers Weekly critic noted, “Kaldis’s feisty personality and complex backstory are appealing as well, solid foundations for a projected series.” A Kirkus Reviews contributor also found that book “a surprisingly effective debut novel.” Booklist declared Siger’s second novel in the series,Assassins of Athens, “International police procedural writing at its best.”
Scene of the Crime caught up with Jeff in New York, on an extended book tour. Jeff, thanks for taking time from your promotional efforts to talk with us about the importance of setting in your novels.
First please describe your connection to your Mykonos. How did you come to live there or become interested in it? And, if you do not live on site, do you make frequent trips there?
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and practiced law in New York City, first on Wall Street later and later as a name partner in my own law firm. In the early 1980’s a friend suggested I visit Greece, that I would love it. She was right, but a lone Aegean island ninety miles southeast of Athens is the place that stole my heart: Mykonos, neighbor to the birthplace of the God of Light and home to the greatest 24/7 island life in Europe. Twenty years later, at the height of my practice, I decided to give it all up, write full time, and live on Mykonos. I’ve never looked back nor regretted a single moment of my choice.
What things about Mykonos make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Unique is perhaps my favorite word. I consider it the greatest compliment one can pay—no matter the intended connotation. When paid to Greece it goes far beyond its legendary physical beauty and varied geological textures. Here, ancient places and practices have found a way to survive into a colorful, modern present. Sometimes in harmony with its people, sometime not.
Greece’s neighbors are Balkan countries to the north, Turkey to the east, and North Africa to the south. There’s also Italy to the west, but as any reader of the Aeneid knows, they’re really Greeks. Greece is the birthplace of the gods, the cradle of European civilization, the bridge between East and West, and the land of Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles. Spartan courage, Athenian democracy, Olympic achievement, and Trojan intrigue all call it home. It is a place of island, plains, and mountain villages, and cities filled with émigrés. A country whose modern problems lay spread out before the world, while the secrets of Byzantium stay hidden in unnoticed places protected by reclusive lives led much the same as they were a 1000 years before. Yes, I live amidst the ambiguity that is and always has been Greece.
As counterpoint to all that heavy history is the Cycladic island on which I live my day-to-day life. Mykonos sits less than a mile from the sacred island of Delos—the birthplace of Apollo, the crossroads of trade for the ancient world, and a place obliterated off the face of the earth before the birth of Christ for backing the wrong protector. But Mykonos was barely a bit player back then, and its history was one of struggle. Occupied by foreign powers until the middle of the 20th Century, its general trades were fishing, farming, piracy, and a bit of mining for clay. But all that’s changed.
Today, Mykonos is a new sort of international crossroads, one of dazzling beaches, mega-yachts, private jets, and 24/7 lifestyles. It is Europe’s most popular tourist island, and a source of endless inspiration—filled with visitors from around the world willingly sharing their private thoughts and confidences in relaxed beachside chats or pre-dawn whispered conversations in a club or bar.
Greece is where I mine for inspiration and where I place my tales, it is unique in every way imaginable.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
It was my express purpose to make the island of Mykonos a central character in the debut novel of my Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series. I moved to Mykonos intending to write a book that showed its people, politics, history, and enormously colorful present in a light unknown to virtually all tourists and most mainland Greeks. But as I wrote mysteries, not stories about windmills, summer tavernas, or pelicans, I decided to drop a serial killer into the midst of my island paradise. That’s how Murder in Mykonos (Poisoned Pen Press, 2009) came to be a sort of Mama Mia setting for a No Country For Old Men story.
For my just released second novel in the series, Assassins of Athens (Poisoned Pen Press, 2010), I knew that I couldn’t place another murder on Mykonos, unless I wanted to be run off the island. But I liked Andreas Kaldis and the easy way serious issues, political and otherwise, were expressed around him. So, I decided to promote him on to Athens and its endless supply of things to solve, but Mykonos still plays a significant part in that Miami Vice-paced journey through contemporary Great Gatsby-like Athens, as it will in all my Andreas Kaldis novels.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Location is seminal to my stories; it makes them come alive. Abandoned island mines, ancient ruins, island churches, village lanes, modern big city neighborhoods (sordid, elegant, and in between), even places beyond Greece (such as relatively unknown Sardinian locales) are as important as the characters in my books.
How does Andreas Kaldis interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, an Athenian born second-generation cop, is a politically incorrect, honest observer of his times. He endures and grows, despite all that life and the powerful throw at him and his beloved country.
My books are published in Greek and English in Greece (Aikaterini Lalaouni Editions), in German in Germany (Goldmann Publishing/Random House), and in English in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (Piatkus Press/Little Brown).
Murder in Mykonos was the #1 best selling English-language book in Greece the summer of its simultaneous Greek and English version release and, according to my Greek publisher, received more publicity than any book ever has in Greece. Greece’s Esquire Magazine wrote, “With ten million Greeks, half of whom think they are writers, how come we had to wait for a foreigner to come along to write such a book.” Mykonos Magazine wrote, “Masterfully written…even if you are not a murder-mystery fanatic, you will adore this book…genius.”
When the Greek version of Assassins of Athens was published in Greece it immediately became a top ten best seller among all books in Greece. Greek journalists labeled me the American “prognosticator” (at least I think that’s what the word meant) for anticipating the societal unrest and attitudes that drove Greece’s ruling party out of power after the book was published. Recently, I received a Certificate of Honor from the Mayor of San Francisco, presented in the presence of Greece’s vice-consul general, which stated in part, “Your acclaimed books have not only explored modern Greek society and its ancient roots but have inspired political change in Greece.”
I guess it’s safe to say that with respect to local reaction, “so far, so good.”
Of your Greek-based novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
From Murder in Mykonos:
“Sure, Mykonos was famous for tantalizing tourists with brightly lit shops, colorful restaurants, roaring bars, and freewheeling dance clubs, but this still was a town where people raised families and shared strong traditions. Down the less traveled lanes, children played their games oblivious to the occasional tourists squeezing through their four-, five-, or maybe six-foot-wide playgrounds. Pairs of grandmothers, all in black, did duty watching the children. They’d sit on stoops in front of their houses or, if a shop occupied the street level, on brightly painted wooden balconies outside their second-floor homes; balconies with gates guarding pets, pots of geraniums, draping bougainvillea, and—if rented to tourists—clothes left to dry.
“As she walked, [her] eyes drifted up from the rows of glossy green, blue, and red banisters to where the white textures of the buildings met the sky. So many whites: light white, dark white, sunlit white, shaded white, dirt-caked white, white over color, white over stone, white over wood, white over steel, white over rust, peeled white, fresh white, old white, slick white, coarse white—against so many blues: dark blue, pale blue, and all those blues in between. [She] smiled, took in a deep breath, and said softly, ‘I just love it here.’”
From Assassins of Athens:
“Andreas Kaldis once read or heard somewhere that the chatter never stopped in Athens. Not even at sunrise, when the earth itself seemed to pause to draw a breath. Like its people, the city always had something to say whether you were in the mood to listen or not. Sun-up simply shifted the style of conversation from high-pitched shouts of an Athens at play to the anonymous din of a city at work.
“That’s what Andreas was doing now, working. ‘Turn off the damn siren, no one’s listening.’ He was in a foul mood. ‘The body’s going nowhere. Just like us in this goddamn coming-home-from-partying morning traffic.’
“Police officer Yianni Kouros said nothing, just did what his boss told him to do. That’s why Andreas liked him, he listened.
“Andreas stared out the passenger-side window at a hodgepodge of neglected private and graffiti-covered government buildings. This section of Pireos Street, a formerly elegant avenue, began west of the Acropolis, ran northeast through the trendy, late-night bar and club area of Gazi, and ended with a name change amidst the around-the-clock drug and hooker trade by Omonia Square. What remained of its once-treasured three-and four-story buildings were now warrens of ground-level check cashers, bars, small-time retail shops, and cheap, foreign restaurants. It seemed every immigrant group to Greece had set up shop in this part of town. Truth was, they were everywhere, well almost.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
In alphabetical order, my favorite authors are J.M. Coetzee, Arthur Conan Doyle, Leighton Gage, J. Sydney Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Perry, John Steinbeck, and August Wilson. I wouldn’t say that they or any other writer influenced my “use of the spirit of place” but certainly would cite their terrific collective sense of place as evidence that without such spirit, “There is no there there.” (Thanks, GS)
What’s next for Kaldis?
In my just completed third novel in the series (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011), Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis is off to the Holy Island of Patmos (where John wrote the Book of Revelation) to hopefully solve the murder of a monk in the middle of the old town square during Easter week, before all hell breaks loose—in a manner of speaking.
Thanks so much Jeff for taking us on a journey to Greece.
For more information, see Jeff’s homepage.