At its bare-bones, The Last Red Death has a deceptively straightforward premise: a woman who witnessed the murder of her diplomat father when she was a child returns to the county where it happened and hires a local private investigator to help her track down the man responsible for the murder. As with any great thriller worth its salt, however, things aren’t that straightforward.
The woman, American Grace Helmer, didn’t witness a random act of violence or mugging gone wrong. No, her father was murdered by Iraklis, a rogue offshoot of the Communist Party in Greece which was responsible for a string of terrorist activity in the 70s. And the investigator she hires, Alex Mavros, is himself searching for someone, his brother, who was last seen at an underground resistance meeting thirty years prior.
Further, the recent murders of two high-profile businessmen, both marked with Iraklis’ signature calling card, seems to herald the return of the group after over a decade of dormancy. Tracking down the answers Alex and Grace want may get messy, but like those movie gunslingers, there are some things you just have to do.
His father having been active in the Communist Party during its heyday in Greece, Alex still has contacts deep in the remnants of the organization and is able to call on those contacts to help point him in the right direction. As the pieces being to fall into place, Alex and Grace realize that even though the mysterious leader of Iraklis seems to be back from a long, self-imposed exile, Iraklis may actually not be the driving force behind the new killings. Even more disturbing, it also becomes clear that the mysterious player in the mix is as interested in Alex and Grace as they are in finding the man responsible for her father’s murder, and that not everyone is who they seem.
The Last Red Death is a wonderfully intricate story, one that any fan of thrillers will definitely enjoy. But what really sets the book apart from the run-of-the-mill thriller is author Paul Johnston’s attention to detail with regard to the book’s Greece setting. A native of Scotland who now lives primarily in Greece, Johnston is clearly a student of Greek history and culture, and he weaves that into The Last Red Death in a way that brings the setting and circumstances to life vibrantly.
Johnston also addresses head-on the concepts of radicals and terrorists; specifically, what creates them? As despicable as acts of terrorism are, Johnston brings out through the course of The Last Red Death the undeniable fact that the people who commit those horrific acts are still human, driven by human emotions and ideals. To deal with terrorists you have to understand them, and you’ll never understand them until you acknowledge that those emotions and ideals are not created in a vacuum.
A tribute to Johnston’s skill as an author, the historical and political facets of The Last Red Death never derail or bog the story down. Nor are they presented in a heavy-handed manner. Rather, they are so smoothly incorporated into the story that it not only seems natural, it is absolutely necessary. Indeed, The Last Red Death is one of those rare books that entertains and educates, and does both extremely well.
The Last Red Death was originally released by Hodder & Stoughton in 2003, and reprinted (in some countries) by MIRA in 2009. Your best bet to find it these days is through The Book Depository, which ships for free worldwide.
Be sure to check out Paul’s guest post, “On Death – Not Necessarily Terminal, Not Necessarily Red.”