Book review by Jane Varley:
‘The contemporary thriller at its very best’, wrote the Guardian.
‘The result of my own visits to Greece and the impact of that wonderful country on a mind steeped in the classics, My Brother Michael was my love affair with Greece.’ Mary Stewart
When I was in the first flush of my love affair with Greece way back in the early sixties (I’m abandoning all attempt at ‘academic ‘speak’) I remember my aunt recommending Mary Stewart to me, and it must have been this book in particular.
The story is set in the late 1950s. It is told in the first person. An average middle class girl, early twenties, university educated but none the less subject to the societal expectations of the time, sits alone at a table in a Kafenion in Omonia Square, Athens. She is alone because the girl friend who had planned to travel with her, has been grounded in England by a broken leg. Camilla is sufficiently emancipated to be travelling on her own in a foreign country and to smoke somewhat continuously, but not sufficiently to resist the marital designs of controlling Philip. However, she has plucked up courage to break their engagement and remove his ring. (The mark is fading in the strong Greek sunlight.) She suffers from what we would call these days ‘low self esteem’. She is writing to her friend stuck back in England: ‘I’m getting a bit worried about cash. I suppose I’m a bit of a fool where money is concerned. Philip ran all that . . . ‘ Female readers of the twenty first century would probably judge her to be limp, wet – and irritating. But there is hope for her. She continues the letter: ‘This is the first time for years I’ve been away on my own – I was almost going to say ‘off the lead’ – and I’m really enjoying myself in a way I hadn’t thought possible before. You know, I don’t suppose he’d ever have come here all; I just can’t see Philip prowling around Mycaenae or Cnossos or Delos, can you? Or letting me prowl either.’ However, Camilla has also written in her letter, ‘nothing ever happens to me’, so you know plenty is about to happen.
Enter with some urgency ‘a little dark man with patched and shabby dungarees, a greasy blue shirt and a hesitant smirk’. In broken French he tries to explain that he has brought the hire car which the young lady has booked with the message that it is for Monsieur Simon – and it is a ‘matter of life and death’. He is convinced Camilla is the girl who wants the car and that she is Simon’s girl, is she not? She has six words of Greek, and shaking her head replies ‘Ne’. The problem with that is that ‘ne’ is Greek for ‘yes’.
Camilla struggles with her lack of courage; decides not to take the car to Delphi, and then remembers her words: ’nothing ever happens to me.’ She picks up the ignition key and leaves the kafenion. She will drive the car to Delphi. Mary Stewart has opened her thriller.
She is not an experienced driver (Philip did all the driving). Her four hour drive on bad roads with innumerable obstacles is harrowing for her and amusing for the reader. She gets as far as Amphissa, a mountain village close to Delphi, and manages to get the car stuck in a narrow street from which her driving skills are not sufficient to extract her. Enter a handsome, blonde Englishman. Naturally he turns the car and offers to drive her the rest of the way to Delphi where he was intending to go anyway. Enter the romantic element into the thriller, a mixed form for which Stewart was well known .
Stewart describes with obvious affection and knowledge borne of experience, the rugged landscape of Parnassus. Her knowledge of Greek literature also shows through but rather to add atmosphere than to display it and to add a feeling of awe and excitement at being in the land where Apollo was worshipped, the oracle consulted, where heroes of Greek literature once trod.
On the journey up to Delphi Simon explains why he is in Greece. His older brother, Michael, was a British Liaison Officer working with Greek guerrilla groups during the German occupation of Greece. Great Britain was supporting guerrilla groups with arms and money. Michael died somewhere on Parnassus in 1944 and Simon has come ‘to appease his ghost’. Stewart helpfully explains through Simon the complex situation in Greece during that time. There were many guerrilla organisations, the communist ELAS group being one of the most powerful operating in the mountains. It had been Michael’s mission to try to bring these groups together. However, ELAS smashed all the other groups except EDES. The leader of ELAS, one Ares, was merciless in his pursuit of political power. At the famous battle of Mount Tzoumerka Ares led ELAS in an flank attack on EDES led by Zervas as that group was fighting off the Germans. Ares’ object was to capture supplies to use against his countrymen after the end of the German war when he planned to establish a communist state, through civil war if necessary – a New Dawn. (cf Greece’s recent political history and 21st century New Dawn!) Many prominent figures were shot in cold blood. Ares attacked and burned villages which had escaped the Germans in order to amass supplies and secrete them in caves in the mountains.
While going through his father’s papers after the old man died, Simon had discovered a letter from his brother which hints at an exciting discovery made somewhere on Parnassus. Simon read this letter in the light of his post war knowledge of the Greek civil war and information relayed to him by British officers who had also been in Greece. Michael had been working with an ELAS band led by a man called Angelos Dragoumis, a man with a lastingly bad reputation for cruelty who was, to the shame of post war inhabitants of the area, a local man. When the Germans arrived in Greece in full force Dragoumis seemingly vanished over the Yugoslav border and Michael was alone in the mountains. He was discovered by a German patrol, shot and injured in the shoulder but escaped capture. A shepherd with whom Michael had been working, took him in and hid him. The shepherd’s son paid for this philoxenia with his life when the Germans came to the village. Michael left the house and hid again in the mountain. But he was discovered and killed. Stephanos found his body and retrieved the letter which was smuggled back to England. Also in Michael’s pocket were a few gold sovereigns. In the letter Michael hints at an exciting discovery but relates this in veiled language.
‘. . . there is something I really want to say to you; to record, somehow, on paper – nothing to do with the war or my job here or anything like that, but still impossible to commit to paper . . . ‘
and signs off with – ‘. . . this’ll be over someday soon, and we’ll come back here together to the bright citadel and I can show you then – and little brother Simon too.’
Simon is a classics teacher and mention of a ‘bright citadel’ strikes a note in his mind. It is Apollo’s shrine at Delphi. He has come to Greece to discover what Michael found and to visit his grave in Delphi. He also wants to meet old Stephanos who lives still in Arachova, near Delphi. He has few leads.
Simon finds out from Stephanos that Michael was murdered and that it was he who had brought his body down from the mountain for burial in the Delphi graveyard. And found the letter and a few gold sovereigns in Michael’s pocket. Stephanos is certain that the murderer was Angelos Dragoumis, leader of the local ELAS group.
Camilla by now is intrigued by this mystery and by Simon who is the strong, capable sort, calm and decisive yet honourable and kind. She chooses to follow Simon in his hunt for the truth surrounding his brother’s death. There are various other characters introduced who play small parts in the development of the plot. Nigel, a tentative artist who is trying to find his own style and who draws local people and artefacts; Danielle a French archaeologist’s assistant who is in the area for more than archaeology; Dimitrios, cousin to Angelos Dragoumis. As the plot unfolds Camilla is drawn into ever more dangerous situations but, because by now she is in love with Simon, she summons up her courage and stands up to danger. Finally the story ends in a nail biting scene with Camilla in great danger and the villain intent on yet another murder. To tell more would be a huge spoiler – so I won’t.
But I will say this is a gripping story; a fast moving plot with very likeable, and very unlikable characters equally well drawn. And always in the background looms the majestic Parnassus, the searing sun and the smell of goats and donkeys. The only thing I missed was the sound of cicadas (ztitzigas) always an aural backdrop to life in Greece.
Stewart has a nice turn of phrase too; I found her description of retsina particularly apt and amusing. ‘Retsina is a mild wine strongly flavoured with resin. It can be pleasant; it can also be rough enough to fur the tongue with a sort of antiseptic gooseflesh.’
Read My Brother Michael, it will absorb you and divert you from ‘these unprecedented times.’