Book Reviews

Fire on the Island by Timothy Jay Smith at Arcade Crimewise

Genre Gay / Contemporary / Agents/Spies / Law Enforcement / Romance / Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Reviewed by ParisDude on 07-July-2020

Book Blurb

FIRE ON THE ISLAND is a playful, romantic thriller set in contemporary Greece, with a gay Greek-American FBI agent, who is undercover on the island to investigate a series of mysterious fires. Set against the very real refugee crisis on the beautiful, sun-drenched Greek islands, this novel paints a loving portrait of a community in crisis. As the island residents grapple with declining tourism, poverty, refugees, family feuds, and a perilously damaged church, an arsonist invades their midst.
Nick Damigos, the FBI agent, arrives on the island just in time to witness the latest fire and save a beloved truffle-sniffing dog. Hailed as a hero and embraced by the community, Nick finds himself drawn to Takis, a young bartender who becomes his primary suspect, which is a problem because they’re having an affair. Theirs is not the only complicated romance in the community and Takis isn’t the only suspicious character on the island. The priest is an art forger, a young Albanian waiter harbors a secret, the captain of the coast guard station seems to have his own agenda, and the village itself hides a violent history. Nick has to unravel the truth in time to prevent catastrophe, as he comes to terms with his own past trauma. In saving the village, he will go a long way toward saving himself.
A long time devotee of the Greek islands, Smith paints the setting with gorgeous color and empathy, ushering in a new romantic thriller with the charm of  Zorba the Greek while shedding bright light on the very real challenges of life in contemporary Greece.


Book Review

When the review request for this book came in, my immediate answer was “Greece, crime fiction, exactly what the doctor prescribed…”, if I remember correctly. I might have been hopping on my chair with joy, too, and therefore, once the book had been sent, I opened it with genuine positive anticipation. And, well, it turned out to be a) not exactly what, and b) more than I had expected. I noticed at once all the things that ought to make me write a lukewarm review at best, a negative one if my inital hunches were to come true. Too many things told instead of shown, too many different points of view, a jagged storyline. But. The more pages I turned, the more I was engrossed (and delighted), and the less likely a negative review became.


The book’s genre is crime fiction (not murder mystery as there is no murder) with a deliciously exotic setting—for those not living in Greece, of course, a historical background, and a slightly political twist. The story takes place on the famous Greek island of Lesbos, a mere fifteen kilometers from the Turkish coast. For the record, the island’s most renowned resident was the poetess Sappho, circa 630-circa 570 BC, who was said to be homosexual— hence the words “sapphic” and… “lesbian”. FBI agent Nikos Damigos, of Greek-American origin, is sent on an undercover mission to Vourvoulos, a small coastal village, to investigate some fires that have broken out over the last ten months and are suspected to be arson. They seem to be coming closer and closer to the harbor, thus threatening the coastguard’s fuel tank and the whole village.


Nikos discovers a sleepy little town with its more or less eccentric inhabitants: an overambitious priest, an avuncular mayor, a bunch of chatty old women, a hunky fisherman playing his bouzouki on his boat each evening, a deaf teenage outcast, a ruggedly handsome chief of the coastguards; the flirty tavern-owner Vassoula, her handsome gay brother Takis, their British-Greek neighbor and rival tavern-owner Lydia, Lydia’s pretty young daughter Athina, and the latter’s Albanian paramour Ridi… The villagers’ most urgent worries include the fires, of course, but also the crumbling bell tower, the constant inflow of migrants crossing the narrow strait from Turkey, and most importantly, the economic crisis the country has been forced to face for the last couple of years. As Nikos digs into the fires, he finds out more about the island’s recent past as well as about the petty plots and hurtful losses of some inhabitants. He also starts to fall for Takis… and yet, at one point, the same Takis seems to become his prime suspect as well.


The story is told from several points of view, which disconcerted me a bit at the beginning (Nikos, Lydia, Athina, Takis, Ridi, Vassoula, the priest, a Russian art collector, and more), notably because they sometimes changed in the same chapter. What started out as slightly annoying became enjoyable after a while (it took some getting used to) and allowed me to follow the different strands and twists with fresh insights—a neat technique for a crime novel. The same was true for the telling-rather-than-showing side of the author’s prose. Which goes to show that sometimes, when writers are sure they can pull it off, they are damn right not to heed any writing advice (the foremost of which is, after all, “show, don’t tell”). It’s hard to explain, though, why this worked for me in this particular book when normally it puts me off. Maybe it’s the intertwining of the multiple characters’ angles with all the stories they told, plus the setting of the story? The descriptions of the characters’ surroundings were given by light, small, subtle patches, unobtrusively, but evocatively. For someone like me who knows Greece (and, more importantly, is outright besotted with the country, its people, its food, its customs), it turns out a voyage down memory lane that leaves the taste of longing on one’s tongue and the wish to be in Greece right now.


In one word, I really liked the book. It doesn’t speak of a postcard-Greece one might encounter when spending one’s holidays holed up in a vacation resort, but the real country with its heart-rending present-day problems: the corrupt politicians, the endemic ongoing economical crisis, the despair of many Greeks and their struggle to survive, the migrants (many of them drowning, the surviving ones crammed into shabby makeshift camps because the government has no funds to do it properly, and the rest of Europe is too busy looking the other way) and their lot of subsequent problems (rise of xenophobia and extreme right-wing parties), the generosity of the majority that is so rarely talked about, the widespread mistrust of Albanians and gypsies, the immense love and pride the Greeks feel for their country… All these undercurrents shine through, and for those who don’t know Greece: they are accurate. Reading this book really was like being in Greece. Two love stories are expertly mixed in, too: the rather earth-to-earth, nigh unromantic affair between Nikos and Takis (almost but not entirely a mere hook-up), and the blossoming and sweet teenage romance between Athina and Ridi. These four were by far my favourite characters, but I noticed that even the villains were created in such a way as to allow me to understand them.


Enjoyable read, when all is said and done. Recommended to all crime fiction lovers.






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Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 288 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 07-July-2020
Price $16.99 ebook, $24.99 hardback
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