The Black Life (Alex Mavros Series #6)

The Black Life (Alex Mavros Series #6)

by Paul Johnston

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The story is told in alternating chapters, a narrative set in the present day and also a first person harrowing account of the persecution of the Holocaust years. Whilst it is an indictment of the wartime collaboration and subsequent profiteering to which many countries turned a blind eye, and whilst it also underlines the extent of anti-Semitism still existing in


The story is told in alternating chapters, a narrative set in the present day and also a first person harrowing account of the persecution of the Holocaust years. Whilst it is an indictment of the wartime collaboration and subsequent profiteering to which many countries turned a blind eye, and whilst it also underlines the extent of anti-Semitism still existing in Greece and elsewhere today, the novel also contains accounts of working life in the concentration camps and how survival of some Jews might depend on their working for the SS and even sending one’s own family members to their deaths in the gas chambers.

This is the latest outing for half-Greek, half-Scottish Private Investigator, Alex Mavros – but this is really only a vehicle for the author’s most far-reaching and ambitious novel to date.

The gripping dual narrative that follows provides readers with a fresh perspective into what makes Greece – that most volatile and fascinating of countries - tick, as well as shocking new insights into the atrocities of the Second World War and into what makes a man into a killer without conscience and guilt. If readers think they know all there is to know about the Holocaust, they should read Paul Johnston’s The Black Life – and think again.

This is a harrowing read. The Black Life is the most moving work yet from an experienced, award-winning writer.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Johnston probes Greek anti-Semitism, both during the Holocaust and afterward, in his standout sixth mystery featuring Athens PI Alex Mavros (after The Green Lady). Aron Samuel was believed to have died in Auschwitz with much of his family, but when someone claims to have spotted him alive and well in Thessaloniki, French jeweler Eliezer Samuel hires Mavros to find the truth. The present-day investigation alternates with a first-person narrative set during WWII, providing familiar, but nonetheless harrowing, accounts of the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews. The detective’s inquiries don’t make things simpler for the surviving Samuels, or for Mavros himself, whose wife’s infertility has strained their marriage. The colorful lead, with his unusual heritage (his father was a leader of the Greek Communist party and his mother was Scottish) and dogged commitment to his work, is a worthy addition to the growing roster of contemporary Mediterranean sleuths. Agent: Broo Doherty, Wade and Doherty (U.K.). (Dec.)
“A strong addition to the series.”
From the Publisher
“Standout sixth mystery featuring Athens PI Alex Mavros”
Publishers Weekly

“A strong addition to the series.”

"This PI Mavros entry pulsates with suspense and a sensation of dread.  Consider this Balkan noir at its best"
Library Journal on The Black Life

Library Journal
Already under siege from an earlier case that has left a known assassin at large, Greek/Scottish PI Alex Mavros has done everything possible to keep his loved ones safe, but it's a slippery slope at best. He's about to take a case involving an apparent sighting of Aron Samuel, an elderly Greek Sephardic Jew from Thessaloniki who was thought to have died in a World War II concentration camp. Hired by Aron's surviving younger brother, Alex is irritated by his client's daughter, Rachel, and her insistence on accompanying him to the Macedonian region in northern Greece. His wariness is justifiable; readers know that Rachel has a covert agenda of her own. Through flashback chapters set in the 1940s, readers understand the depth of hatred coursing through Aron Samuel's veins. As Alex's investigation heats up, it seems that Aron is very much alive and that he hasn't completed his life's work. VERDICT With its multiple points of view, this PI Mavros entry (after The Green Lady) pulsates with suspense and a sensation of dread as the PI fights both the Samuel family's demons and his own. Consider this Balkan noir at its best.
Kirkus Reviews
Scots/Greek private eye Alex Mavros' sixth case sets him on the trail of an old man who's recently been spotted in Thessaloniki even though he died in Auschwitz. Jewelry king Eliezer Samuel thought he'd finished mourning his uncle over 60 years ago. So he's stunned when Ester Broudo tells Rabbi Savvas Rousso that she saw Aron Samuel outside a wedding. Though it defies belief that Aron could have survived and then hidden himself for all these years, Eliezer knows concentration camps' records are notoriously unreliable. So he asks Alex, a well-known missing persons specialist, to fly to Thessaloniki along with Eliezer's daughter, Rachel, to follow the trail of the apparition. Alex isn't crazy about working with Rachel, who seems to have her own agenda, or leaving behind his ladylove, social worker Niki Glezou, who's already distraught because she can't get pregnant. But the bills for the home he shares with Niki must be paid, so he takes the job, hoping that he can stay one step ahead of the Son, the killer who survived Alex's last case (The Green Lady, 2013) and swore vengeance. Unlike Alex, readers know from the beginning that Aron is indeed alive courtesy of alternating chapters told from his perspective that trace his story from World War II to the present. It's such a horrifying tale that the odds of Alex surviving his encounter with "the abyss of the twentieth century's greatest crime" unscathed seem negligible. Just as high a body count as Alex's last two cases, though the Holocaust back story sharpens this one to a knife point.

Product Details

Severn House Publishers
Publication date:
Alex Mavros Series, #6
Edition description:
First World Publication
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Black Life

By Paul Johnston

Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2013 Paul Johnston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78029-048-5


Mavros woke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

'I thought that a sketo would pull you out of whatever filthy dream you were having. That or grabbing your flagstaff and I haven't time for that.' Niki Glezou handed him the small cup of unsweetened coffee and ran her fingers through her tousled, highlighted hair.

'What time is ...' Mavros looked at the clock. 'For the love of God.'

'Who you don't believe in. Normal people in Athens get up before seven, Alex. Normal people go to work.' Niki's tone was sharp, but she was smiling.

'What do you mean? I've got an appointment today.'

'Oh yes? What time?'


'I rest my case.'

Mavros downed his coffee, hiding that it wasn't strong enough. Still, maybe he'd be able to get another hour's sleep after she'd gone.

Niki's expression turned sombre. 'Remember we have the fertility specialist this evening.'

Mavros nodded. 'Seven-thirty. I'll be back long before that.'

'You'd better be.' Niki took his cup and saucer from the duvet and twisted his nose. 'We're getting to the bottom of why I can't conceive if it costs all my salary.' She lowered her head and kissed him on the lips. 'It isn't as if we don't try often enough.'

He watched as she walked to the door, swaying her hips seductively. The old Niki wouldn't have done that except in self-mockery. It seemed that a year of on-off living with Mavros had changed her priorities.

'Oh, and if you see the Fat Man,' she called from the hall, 'tell him that last baklavas was solid enough to build a bridge on.'

She still had her abrasive edge though. Then again, Niki was under a lot of pressure. She was a social worker specialising in immigration issues and her workload had increased hugely. In her late thirties, she was also obsessed with getting pregnant. In the past they had split up because she didn't think Mavros was committed to them having a child. Over the last year he had done his best to show that he was. They had been brought close again partly because of the threat they were under. An ice-veined killer known as the Son was on the loose and had nearly done for Mavros the previous year. To throw him off their trail, Niki had sold her flat in the southern suburbs of Athens and they had moved to the top floor of a modern block halfway up Mount Lykavittos. A politician lived two floors below, so there was additional security. The rent was ridiculous, but Mavros's ageing mother helped. He didn't feel good about that. At least he was within close range of her place round the hill, as well as his friend the Fat Man's in Neapolis below.

He tried to go back to sleep without success. After a work-out on his exercise bike and rowing machine, he took a shower and investigated the contents of the fridge. Niki was only barely house-trained and all he found was a pot of her low-fat yoghurt. That did it. Breakfast at the Fat Man's was unavoidable.

'You're lucky. I just pulled a galaktoboureko out of the oven. Give it a quarter of an hour and we'll be in paradise.'

Mavros took in Yiorgos Pandazopoulos's sweat-dripping features and rounded belly. 'Ever thought of changing that apron?'

'Ever thought of kissing my arse?' The Fat Man dropped his bulk into a battered armchair. 'Thought not. So, how's the lovely Niki?'

Yiorgos was banned from the flat on Lykavittos in case the Son followed him there. Mavros took circuitous routes to and from the place, but he couldn't expect the Fat Man to do the same. It was just as well. He and Niki got on like a volcano on fire.

'Worried about not getting pregnant,' Mavros said.

'I'd have thought another generation of —' The Fat Man broke off. 'Sorry, I know you want to make her happy.'

'And make you the atheist father of a bouncing mini-Mavros.'

'I bet Niki would be keen on that. What's going on workwise?'

Yiorgos had been involved in several of Mavros's missing-persons cases and acted as his sidekick and record-keeper.

'Not a lot. Cutting ties with Kriaras maybe wasn't such a good idea.'

'He's an arsehole and a lackey of the rich. Plus he almost got you killed. What else could you do?'

Nikos Kriaras was head of the organised crime squad, a fixer with connections to many of the super-rich who pulled the politicians' strings. He used to put clients – especially foreign ones with problems the police didn't want to deal with – Mavros's way.

'Well, I could have killed him,' Mavros said, scratching his stubble.

'I'd have helped.'

'No doubt. But I'm not a murderer, remember?'

'You've come pretty close.'

'But never crossed the line.' Mavros gave him a meaningful look. 'Which is important.'

Yiorgos shrugged. 'Depends who the target is.' He went into mockery mode. 'At heart you're just a screwed-up foreigner with different-coloured eyes who doesn't really fit in Greece.'

Mavros laughed, as much at the truth of the statement as the tone. His father, Spyros, long dead, had been a senior member of the Greek Communist Party, while his mother came from a bourgeois Scottish family. There were brown flecks in his left eye, while the right one was pure dark blue. For some reason women found that attractive, though maybe his shoulder-length black hair helped. Or his innate charm. Or his imagination.

'Nothing from the Son?' the Fat Man asked. He was a long-standing communist too and had been close to Spyros, though his allegiance to the party had faded in recent years.

'You mean any special-delivery packages full of heads or spleens? No. Maybe he's busy killing people in another country.'

Yiorgos heaved himself up and headed for the kitchen. 'Which doesn't mean he won't be back.'

'You are using the alarm system I got for you?'

The Fat Man reappeared, carrying an oven tray of perfectly browned custard-filled pastry. 'Of course. And there are sharpened knives all over the house.'

Mavros knew those wouldn't be enough to keep the assassin and torturer at bay for more than a few seconds.

'I've also invested in a shotgun and an old but serviceable Makarov. One of the comrades helped me.'

'Did he also teach you how to use them?' Mavros asked acidly. He could handle firearms, but hated the sight of them.

'I did a bit of target shooting with the pistol, yes.' Yiorgos grinned as he cut a large slice of the pastry and dumped it on a plate. 'Hardly seemed necessary with the shotgun. Aim in general direction and pull trigger.'

Mavros took his portion, shaking his head. Then he bit into the galaktoboureko and was transported to a simpler, sweeter world.

After taking the trolley-bus to Omonia Square and losing – he hoped – any potential tail in the backstreets, Mavros headed for the Grand Bretagne Hotel on Syndagma Square. Although it was early November, the sun was shining strongly and his leather jacket was almost too much. The yellow parliament building – the former royal palace – stood on the rise to his right. It was filled with wheelers, dealers and thieves, with a few, very few, notable exceptions. There were tourists about though the season had ended; the buzz from the Olympics the year before still made Athens an attractive destination, even for people who only went through the motions with the Acropolis and the museums. The uniformed men on the door gave Mavros suspicious looks, but he didn't care. His jeans were clean and his T-shirt had no logo. Not many pairs of biker boots entered the city's premier hotel and that made him proud. Whether it would impress his potential client was another matter.

He walked across the wide space of marble. 'I have a meeting with Mr Eliezer Samuel,' he said, in English, partly because he was unsure how to pronounce the names and partly because he liked to play with his dual nationalities.

The receptionist, an attractive woman with what looked like genuine blonde hair, pulled tightly back, tapped on a keyboard.

'Your name, please?'




She smiled primly. 'Yes, Mr Samuel is waiting for you, sir. Suite 542.'

He used the stairs and was pleased to find that his breathing was relatively unaffected by the five flights. He found the door and knocked.

It was opened by a tall young woman with a stern face and gleaming back hair that reached her shoulders.

'Mr Mavros?' she asked, the 'r' coming from the back of her throat in the French way.

'That's me. Obviously you aren't Mr Samuel.'

'No,' came a male voice from further inside. 'I am.'

'It's Sam-oo-eel,' the woman said softly, as she stepped aside.

Mavros moved into the sumptuously appointed suite and was confronted by a well-built man with white hair, whose unwrinkled face suggested he wasn't as old as he might have been. He wore an expensive-looking dark blue suit, white shirt and red silk tie.

'Mr Mavros,' he said, extending a hand and squeezing his visitor's tightly.

'The same. That's quite a grip.'

'I play squash three times a week.' Although the man's English had French notes, it was fluent. 'Please sit down. Rachel will bring us coffee.'

Mavros was about to object, having sunk another sketo at the Fat Man's, but decided against it. Negativity was never a good idea at the beginning of meetings, especially when you needed the work.

Samuel picked up a file from the glass-topped table. 'I have a collection of your press cuttings here, Mr Mavros.'

'Alex, please.'

'Very well, Alex. Your career has been most impressive.'

'I've had my moments.'

'Modest, too. I like that in a man. The French ambassador tells me that some of your biggest cases have not been reported in the media.'

He knows the French ambassador, Mavros thought. How much does the French ambassador know about me?

'That's true.'

'Good, because what I'm going to ask you to do must remain confidential.'

Mavros sipped the coffee, which was nothing like as good as the Fat Man's. 'I'm always strict about client confidentially, but I can't guarantee that the people I have to deal with will keep their mouths shut. Inducements can be applied, of course.'

Samuel looked at Rachel, who had joined him on the sofa. 'You mean money?'

'Not necessarily. Everyone has a weak point.'

'Ah!' The Frenchman smiled. 'I like your style. Let us begin. First, tell us what you know about me.'

The initial contact had been by email. Mavros had checked Eliezer Samuel's background as a matter of course. Apart from professional thoroughness, he had to be careful – the Son could be lurking.

'You own and run Samuel and Samuel S.A.,' – he got the pronunciation right – 'one of the largest jewellers in France. Based in Paris, but with retail branches across the country. Last year the company made a net profit of over 60 million euros. You are sixty-three years old and are married to Nicole Pintor, your first wife Naomi having died in 1967. My commiserations.'

'Thank you. It was ... a terrible blow. She was hit by a car.' Samuel looked at Rachel. 'But Nicole has brought me great joy, as well as Rachel and her brother.'

'David, born 1972, who is your partner in the business.'

'What year was I born, Mr Mavros?' the young woman asked.

'January 14th 1977.'

'Touché.' She smiled briefly.

'I'm impressed, Alex,' Samuel said, lighting a medium-sized cigar. 'Anything else?'

'You have an apartment in the seventh arrondissement, a country house near Tours and a villa in Antibes.'

Samuel puffed out smoke. 'Very good. More?'

'Are you sure?'

He nodded, though his expression was grim.

'All right. Your parents were Sephardic Jews from Thessaloniki. They, your elder brother and sister, your grandparents and the rest of your extended family were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau after being transported in 1943.'

Eliezer Samuel had put down the cigar and was looking straight at Mavros. Rachel took his hand.

'You have done your homework, Alex,' the jeweller said.

'If I may, how did you escape?'

'My parents smuggled me out of Thessaloniki not long after my birth. I was fortunate enough to end up with a Jewish family in Canada.'

Mavros looked at the daughter. In profile, her eyes on her father, she was very striking, her cheeks high, her nose straight and her unpainted lips full.

'I'm sorry,' Mavros said lamely. 'That must have been very difficult for your parents.'

'I imagine so, though they didn't have long to live with it.' Samuel picked up his cigar again. 'I grew up in Montreal, but moved back to Europe in the late 60s. With the passage of time and the growth of the family business, I found ways of living with the facts you stated.'

Mavros noticed the tense. 'Found ways? And now?'

The Frenchman looked at his daughter, whose hand was still over his. 'And now our world has been turned upside down.'

Mavros waited, aware that questions were unnecessary. Samuel hadn't told him what the job was when he phoned to confirm their meeting. Now he would do so unprompted.

'I need some more coffee.'

Rachel refilled her father's cup from the cafetière. Mavros shook his head.

'This is what happened. I never returned to Thessalonique, as the French call it. That would have been too painful and I preferred to remain in a state of ignorance about the place where my family lived. But I provide funds for several Jewish organisations and have contacts there.' Samuel emptied his cup. 'Ten days ago I was contacted by Rabbi Savvas Rousso. One of the elderly women in a home I partly finance – her name is Ester Broudo – saw my Uncle Aron in the street.'

'Your Uncle Aron? I thought all your Thessaloniki relatives perished in Poland.'

'We did too.'

Mavros looked from Eliezer Samuel to Rachel and back again. 'So you want me to look for a dead man?'

Samuel nodded. 'Or that even rarer thing – a man who has come back from the dead.'

'That's ridiculous,' Niki said, as she and Mavros left for the fertility clinic. 'How can you find a dead man?'

'Presumably he wasn't really dead. Or the old woman who saw him is dotty.'

'Those poor parents, giving their baby away. Or rather, those unbelievably harsh parents.'

Mavros tightened his grip on her hand as they passed the police guard outside the apartment block. Predictably, she had zeroed in on that part of the story. He shouldn't really have shared it with her, but client confidentiality didn't include Niki and the Fat Man. Someone had to sound the alarm if he disappeared on a job.

'It was good that they did, considering what happened to the family.'

'Yes, but how could a mother separate herself from her child – how old was he?'

'Six months.'

'My God,' she said, in anguish. 'I can't even begin to imagine what that must have been like.'

Shivering in the unexpected cold, Mavros stopped a taxi on the Lykavittos ring road and directed the driver to the clinic behind the Hilton. They could have walked, but the lurking threat of the Son meant they rationed that activity. They still didn't use a car, though. Mavros had never had one because he'd always lived in the centre of the city. Niki's Citroën was under a tarpaulin in the parking area on the ground floor of their apartment building. He didn't want the Son tailing her when she was on her own.

He squeezed her arm. 'They correctly guessed what was going to happen to the Jews of Thessaloniki. Besides they had two other children.'

Niki turned on him. 'That's supposed to excuse them, is it? They already had kids, so they could dispense with the third one?'

Mavros knew she was at high tension over the doctor's appointment. 'Look, Eliezer Samuel survived. He's got two kids of his own. That was what his parents would have wanted.'

Niki flopped against him. 'Yes, I suppose so.' She took his hand. 'Alex, if I get pregnant and it's a choice between me and the baby, you will take our child, won't you?'

'There's a couple of pretty major "ifs" there.'

'Answer,' she said, her fingers digging into his skin.

'It's totally hypothetical,' he objected. 'Besides, there would be medical advice to follow.'

'Coward,' she muttered, turning away.

Mavros kept hold of her hand but it was limp now, the attack of nerves having passed. That was just as well. He still hadn't worked out how he was going to tell her about the arrangements he'd agreed with the Frenchman.


My life wasn't always black. I still remember the blinding blue skies over the Thessaloniki I grew up in; the glinting waves in the bay and the green fields at the edge of the built-up areas. But things were already changing for the Jewish community. When the city was liberated from the Ottoman Empire by the Greeks in 1912, Sephardic Jews descended from those expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries made up the largest population group. That changed in 1922, when the exchange of populations meant that the Muslims left and Greeks from Asia Minor flooded into Macedonia and its capital. They resented the wealth of the Jews, though many of our people were poor dock workers and carters.

'My son, why do you care for those unfortunates?' my father would ask. 'I donate money to their representatives. You have no need to feel guilty.'

So he thought. The family had been jewellers for centuries and he had four shops in the wealthier parts of the city. My elder brother Isaak had started working at weekends when he was still at school, but I refused. I was always contrary. I got that from my mother. Despite the restrictions of bourgeois that from my mother. Despite the restrictions of bourgeois Sephardic culture, she ran our home like an empress – a short one, like the English Victoria, but much louder, I would guess.

'I don't care if you don't want to work in the shops,' she would say, 'but at least get out of that room. It isn't as if you're studying for school.'


Excerpted from The Black Life by Paul Johnston. Copyright © 2013 Paul Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Mark Billingham
'Johnston is one of the best there is and THE BLACK LIFE is his finest novel yet'

Meet the Author

Born and brought up in Edinburgh, Paul Johnston studied ancient and modern Greek at Oxford and now divides his time between Scotland and Greece. As well as four previous Alex Mavros novels, he is the author of the award-winning Quint and Matt Wells crime series.

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