On Death – Not Necessarily Terminal, Not Necessarily Red by Paul Johnston

Today I am pleased to welcome Paul Johnston for a guest post. Though he’s criminally under-the-radar here in the States, Paul is the accomplished author of three different series: the Matt Wells series (featuring investigative crime reporter Wells), Quint Dalrymple series (crime-SF crossover novels set in a futuristic Edinburgh), and the Greece-set Alex Mavros series. It’s that last series Paul is talking about today, and from which The Last Red Death, the book I will be reviewing tomorrow, comes.

Paul JohnstonThe second of my Greece-set novels, The Last Red Death, first saw the light of day in 2003 and was republished in 2009. So why the hell am I writing about it now?

Some background. I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and studied classics there and at Oxford. But the formative period in my life was the six months I spent as a somewhat ham-fisted tour guide in Greece between school and college. Obviously I was already fascinated by ancient Greek literature and history, but the experience of the ‘real’ country and its people turned me on to the modern culture and language – to the extent that I changed my degree and ended up majoring in Modern Greek.

From then on, I was interested only in returning to the country to live, something I finally managed in 1987. I’ve been moving between the UK and Greece ever since, but now spend much more time in our new home in Nafplio, a beautiful seaside town in the Peloponnese, about 100 miles southwest of Athens.

After writing a series of five crime-SF crossover novels set in a futuristic Edinburgh, I finally found the time (and publishing contract) to do what I’d really been wanting to do for years – write crime novels set in Greece. Note: this was in 2000, well before the current financial woes that are ripping the country apart – back then there wasn’t much crime, apart from corruption. But there was no shortage of other problems. One of them was the caustic effect of sudden tourism-based prosperity in previously dirt-poor island communities. I wrote about that in A Deeper Shade of Blue, republished as Crying Blue Murder.

A major theme of that book and its two sequels was ‘the weight of history’, as the Greek call their vast and often distracting heritage; and a component of that was the Second World War, during which the anti-Axis Allies, mainly the British, played an often unhelpful part. This is a particular problem for the series protagonist, Alex Mavros, who is half Greek and half Scots. Before anyone thinks, “Ooh, that’s clearly some kind of sublimated fantasy of the author’s”, I should point out that I’m very happy living in Greece (especially since we moved out of Athens) and being married to a Greek, but I have no desire whatsoever in becoming Greek. I have enough problems as a Scot.

In The Last Red Death, I develop the history angle further. This is a novel about terrorism and its roots. Now maybe you begin to see the point of this blog at this time. In the novel, American Grace Helmer, who as a five year old witnessed her diplomat father’s murder by a left-wing terrorist group known as Iraklis (Hercules), comes back to Greece to find the killer. She hires Mavros, a missing persons specialist, to help her out – but at the same time, Iraklis murders start again after a long dormant period. Soon the two find themselves in the sights not only of the master-terrorist Iraklis himself, but of another murderous organization.

The novel was partly inspired by the terrorist killing of Brigadier Stephen Saunders, a British military attaché in Athens. What struck me subsequently was the inability of his widow, for whom I have the greatest sympathy, to understand why he had been murdered – leading me to wonder if a failure to connect with the mindsets of terrorists is the reason why wars against them often fail or take decades to resolve. (Apart from the ongoing operations against Al Qaeda, another recent example is Northern Ireland, where peace, even imperfect, was only achieved after thousands of deaths).

I hasten to add that I have no sympathy for people who use extreme violence to achieve political ends (as you can imagine, this makes me uncomfortable about the British Empire). However, I do feel strongly that we owe it to ourselves to try to understand why they do what they do. In The Last Red Death it becomes clear that terrorists are not people with incomplete mental capacity like serial killers. If anything, they have too much emotion, too much love for their country or cause – (SPOILER ALERT) and, in Grace Helmer’s case, too much love for individuals, as it turns out that the terrorist and her mother had been romantically involved. Mavros, whose father was a Communist but who is himself politically neutral, finds that the roots of contemporary Greek terrorism are in the Second World War, the dubious role of the British, and the savage Civil War that ensued. It’s fair to say that Greece still hasn’t got over that conflict, though it has more pressing problems to handle right now.

The Last Red Death by Paul JohnstonSo, The Last Red Death is a political thriller as well as a crime novel. As it happens, I was in New York City a few weeks after 9/11 and walked past Ground Zero – the smell of horrific destruction will never leave me. That undoubtedly was another motivating factor behind the book. As was the fact that a real life terrorist group, November 17th, had been operating for decades in Greece. In fact, I was quite apprehensive about the book riling them – ‘foreign writer getting involved in our history, he’d be a good target’ – that kind of thing. Then, the day I sent the first draft to my publisher, one of their members was caught when the bomb he was carrying went off and soon afterwards most of the group was behind bars. Whew. Except no one believes that all of them have been caught…

And now we come to an even more painful aspect of the The Last Red Death. While I was writing it, I began to feel more and more unwell, with intermittent severe pain in my abdomen. I went for tests in Edinburgh, but nothing was found. Shortly before the book’s publication, my future wife Roula dragged me kicking and screaming (men, eh?) to a hospital in Athens, were they quickly diagnosed an extremely advanced and aggressive tumour in my urinary tract (sorry if you’re reading this over lunch). A few days later, I had a nine-hour operation, during which a kidney and various other bits were removed. Chemotherapy followed and, eight years on, I’ve had no recurrence (I’ve had a different cancer, but that’s another story). For that reason, the book is tremendously important to me – it’s almost as if my subconscious was saying to me, ‘do the best you can with this book, because it may be your last’. So you can imagine my joy when The Last Red Death won the Sherlock Award for best detective novel back in 2004. (The fact that I’m a major Conan Doyle fan is in the mix too.)

To conclude, what lessons do I draw from my work on terrorism and terrorists? That the latter are human beings with clearly defined agendas, often based on extreme levels of emotion. That their grievances are always the result of the excessive use of force (economic, ideological, openly polemic) by larger powers. That understanding those grievances and the historical dimension are essential. And that, in fighting terrorists, applying the law in its finest detail is the only way to win hearts and minds internationally.

The Last Red Death was an important book for me, and I think it has stood the test of time. It ends with Mavros watching a group of refugees or illegal immigrants wearing red and white checked scarves, and hoping that there will be no more ‘red’ deaths. Unfortunately that hope was a forlorn one.

Paul Johnston’s latest novel, The Nameless Dead, featuring crime writer-investigator Matt Wells is published by MIRA. Previous books in the Matt Wells series are The Death List, The Soul Collector and Maps of Hell. The Last Red Death, part of the the Alex Mavros series set in Greece, was last published by MIRA in the UK and a few other countries, not including the US. Amazon.com and .co.uk should be able to help. Paul also writes a series set in Scotland in the 2020s, the Quint Dalrymple series. To learn more about Paul, visit his website.


  • Charles Wingfield

    May 23, 2011 - 2:00 PM

    Definitely important to understand where someone else is coming from if you want to communicate. Got to show you at least “get” them even if you don’t agree. Glad your health sounds like it’s doing ok now. Thanks for the interesting post.

  • Y.E. Teague

    May 19, 2011 - 1:55 PM

    Amazing how the mind works, both from the perspective of terrorists (or any extremist, really) being willing to kill or die for a belief, and from the subliminal perspective of you having felt driven to give everything to this book for reasons you didn’t even fully understand at the time.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to exploring your writing.

  • Sabrina Ogden

    May 19, 2011 - 10:18 AM

    Incredible post, Paul. I am often surprised by the number of people that believe the less we know, the better off we are. I would rather know what makes a terrorist organization “tick” than to sit in ignorance, pretending that their ideas will never personally affect me. They do; regardless of distance.

    I was sorry to read about your health, but hope that you continue to improve so your writing can move forward. I’m looking forward to Elizabeth’s review tomorrow. Three different series… where to begin? Thanks for sharing with us today.