CANBERRA author Peter Papathanasiou has made a foray into “ethnic noir” with the invention of a Greek-Australian detective, Sgt George Manolis, despatched from police headquarters to look into a crime committed in his home town, Cobb.
And what a crime!
For when the local primary school teacher is found apparently stoned to death in the sports ground, suspicion falls on inmates of the nearby low-security detention centre, full of people very familiar with the practice of stoning women for adultery.
It’s a dark premise for a dark book and is a far cry from Papathanasiou’s more optimistic autobiographical work “Little One”, which chronicles his family background and his unusual adoption within a Greek family.
When I catch up with him by phone to his home in Hackett, where he lives with his “understanding” wife and three boys under the age of six, he is deep in a new novel while planning the screen adaptation of “Little One”, helped by seed-funding from Screen Canberra and with noted Greek-Australian film director Peter Andrikidis on board.
Meantime, he’s basking in the publication of his new book, “The Stoning”, commended by Canberra crime writer Chris Hammer as “outback noir with the noir dialled right up”.
You can say that again. It would be hard to find a more scarifying look at small-town Australia and, although Papathanasiou reminds me that crime writers are always looking for new ways to kill people, his violent prologue is hard to forget.
“Maybe I was taking a risk, as this book is designed to disturb the image of Australia as a positive society, but remember, it’s also a whodunnit,” he says.
Among his qualifications, which include a PhD in biological sciences from the ANU and an MA from City University London, is an LLB in criminal law, which he says gave him useful insights while he planned a complex story that reaches into the nastier parts of Australia and into our murky history of racism.
The opening death scene was there in his very first draft, although he didn’t know the outcome at that stage.
In the London writing course, which was specific to the popular crime genre, he was taught that crime writers are normally either “plotters” or “pantsers” (as in “by the seat of your pants”).
“I was a ‘pantser’ in this book, which I started as part of my masters,” he says, but the lecturer cautioned students that if you got two thirds though your crime novel without knowing whodunnit, you’d be in trouble.
Even so, Papathanasiou says: “It’s easy to be led down a certain path of a certain suspect without seeing an ending in sight… the complexity and plot comes with drafting and adding layer upon layer.”
Every crime novel, he believes, needs both noble and villainous characters, so heroes such as Manolis have their own problems, but he’d rather not go down the well-trodden path (think Wallander) of the scruffy cop suffering from PTSD – Manolis is a snappy dresser.
Papathanasiou has long wanted to write a book with a Greek-Australian hero and had another book under his belt that was set in the outback, so it was a comfortable place to set his novel.
With an immigration camp thrown in, lashings of Greek in the text as Manolis reflects on his own background as (like the author) the grandson of Smyrna refugees, and a laconic Aboriginal cop in the local police station, he had no shortage of excuses to debate the big issues, inevitably depicting a toxic culture.
“I needed a First Australian voice, since I was talking about immigration and race and culture and to ‘Sparrow’ the Aboriginal cop, just about everybody around him is a newcomer,” says Papathanasiou.
When he started writing the book in 2014, Tony Abbott was prime minister, so he named his victim Molly Abbott then, back in Australia, he did more research about immigration detention centres and their towns.
“I infuse these aspects into Manolis as a character,” he says. “He has refugee blood in his veins, so he can see, through the eyes of the refugee Ahmed, what the refugees are going through.”
Mind you, Papathanasiou is pretty sure that the most interesting character in his book – and the most film worthy – is the cop “Sparrow”, whose laconic views colour the novel, making Manolis more of the straight man.
The other colourful characters, including the racist Vera, who demonstrates that toxicity is not limited to males, are also likely to be film worthy, a thought that has crossed his mind.
There are a lot of question marks at the end of “The Stoning”, and as Papathanasiou says, that’s no accident, “because crime books are particularly amenable to becoming part of a series”.
There’s the question of Manolis’ estranged wife, unresolved sexual tension with the female cop Kate and a mysterious issue to do with his father that gives a twist to the end.
Of course, now he’s writing the follow-up.
“The Stoning,” by Peter Papathanasiou, Transit Lounge Press, available at book shops and online retailers.
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