by Christodoulos Moisa (One Eyed Press, 2015)
Reviewed by Antony Millen
The Ngaio Marsh Awards are, for the first time, going to be acknowledging the best first novel written by a New Zealand author. One of the entrants is Christodoulos Moisa. Long renowned as a poet, painter, photographer, and publisher from Whanganui, Moisa has turned his hand to crime fiction in The Hour of the Grey Wolf, an engaging, complex story about a Kiwi journalist who shifts to his parents’ village in 1973 Cyprus to recover from an injury sustained in Vietnam, only to find himself embroiled in a murder mystery.
A good crime story should resolve in a logical fashion. The reader should feel that all the clues were there throughout and that, when linked together, it forms a coherent whole, a sequential structure leading to a satisfying end. The Hour of the Grey Wolf is a crime story and a worthy entry in this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards. However, in many ways it defies the genre. It is literary fiction as well, experimental in form, so experimental that, simply linked together with logic, the parts should not work together to form that coherent whole. And yet they do. And perhaps this is due to the fact that the book’s author is as experienced in artistic and photographic composition as he is in fiction writing. Like the painter he is, he blends and mixes to create new colours that continually draw the reader’s eye on to the next page so that the end is not only satisfying in terms of logic, but also in terms of aesthetic.
If you prefer your crime fiction to be more straightforward, have no fear. The Hour of the Grey Wolf is a compelling page turner, a classic whodunit. It features a murder mystery stumbled upon by protagonist Steve Carpenter (aka Stauvro Marange), a journalist from New Zealand who moves to Cyprus to recover from injuries sustained during his coverage of the Vietnam War. Cyprus is the former home of Carpenter’s parents and, in 1973, it is a nation in turmoil. The newly elected first president of the Republic, Archbishop Makarios, is under threat of assassination (in fact, the real Makarios survived four assassination attempts) and the island is on the brink of civil war. The political events of the day even affect the small village of Mpalloura, where Carpenter is based and where, despite his parental connections, he must work diligently to penetrate the community’s distrust of him as an outsider, especially as he endeavours to help solve a murder case.
Cyprus is a significant setting in Moisa’s other writing (for example, in Blood and Koka Kola, a collection of his short stories) and one he knows well, having spent several of his early years there including a return visit in the early 1970s. His descriptions of the village and surrounds feel genuinely Mediterranean. In some ways, Mpalloura reminds me of the Italian setting of DL Smith's The Miracles of Santo Fico, although Moisa weaves in much more of his village’s history, politics and philosophies. Some may find the intriguing political tensions difficult to understand, but you continually know you are in the good hands of a writer who understands them very well. The political machinations and intrigue are there for you to delve into if you wish, or you can allow them to add to the atmosphere of place as you follow Carpenter in solving the crime.
Through Carpenter’s first-person narration, Moisa’s novel begins almost like a memoir, but then transitions into more traditional mystery/crime thriller story-telling. There's even a poem and short story thrown in by the protagonist and, even as I describe this, it sounds like the experimental nature of the narrative shouldn't work, but it does. I kept turning the pages and am certain other readers will too.
Moisa has created colourful, realistic characters and a tremendous sense of what every island nation must feel: that everyone is connected, if not by family, then by past grievances and petty ambitions. There are far fewer than six degrees of separation here. One of my favourite characters is retired surveyor Petros Xenis,who expounds a treatise on friendship. He is one of those surprisingly intelligent locals, like another man Carpenter encounters in Vietnam who has an eidetic knowledge of the Greek geographer, Eratosthenes. These are diamonds in the rough, steeped in knowledge and wisdom, couching their contributions to Carpenter’s experiences in terms of mythology and history.
At times, Moisa uses his teacher voice, instructional and informative, often explaining Kiwi concepts, and I get the impression his intended audience includes readers beyond these shores. This added information is fine, just not necessary for most Kiwi readers.At the same time, he employs some Cyprus-specific vocabulary and it is helpful that he includes a glossary of common words and even a map of the country. Again, this vocabulary serves to enrich the reading experience and does not detract from the intriguing mystery. The artist’s eye is also present and, perhaps because we know Moisa as an artist, it stands out that it is his voice more than his protagonist’s whose background contains little evidence to suggest he would understand art and iconography so well.
The overall effect of The Hour of the Grey Wolf cannot be denied: the setting and characters are still resonating with me as is the enjoyment I had in reading this charming crime story. Better still, Moisa has more to come, just recently announcing that his second novel, Overcast Sunday, may be out by the end of this month.
The Hour of the Grey Wolf is available in paperback and e-book formats on Amazon.
Antony Millen is a Canadian living in New Zealand. He is the author of three novels and has recently been collecting awards, publications and rejections for his short stories. He blogs regularly on his website: antonymillen.com. Follow him on Twitter here.