In the timeless mountains of Crete, there is a law that seems as old as humanity itself: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." The same law was vigorously enforced for a long time in the American West, where hanging could be the penalty even for the theft of cattle or a horse.
Still, America looked like a safe refuge (or at least a large one) for Stellios Trombakis in 1909 when he fled the Cretan village of Vilandreou. Stellios was trying to elude the vengeance of Manolis Manousakis, whose brother Aleko he had shot down in cold blood. As Stellios soon discovers in the latest expertly crafted novel by Harry Mark Petrakis, America in the years just before World War I was not necessarily a paradise for a young Greek immigrant who could not read or speak English.
Fresh off the ferry from Ellis Island, he is lured, with fellow immigrants, into a railroad work gang where the men are cheated out of a part of their wages and treated like animals. He flees the railroad gang after beating the brutal overseer in a no-holds-barred fight and soon finds a search party at his heels, complete with bloodhounds and a noose.
His miraculous escape, which leaves him scarred with a rope burn around his neck for the rest of his life, seems a bit improbable in the cold reflection of retrospect, but it allows Petrakis to write a vivid lynching scene without losing one of his chief characters, and it also makes credible the conversion of Stellios from a thoughtless, brutal hothead into a sort of secular saint: a union organizer risking his life to help organize the Greek workers in the coal mines of Utah.
Death threats were a more or less automatic fringe detriment of that kind of job in those days--but by now, death threats have become a part of the air Stellios breathes. In Crete, respect for written laws was undermined by attitudes the population developed during centuries of Turkish rule; in working-class America, during the days when the unions were being organized, respect for written laws was undermined by the (essentially accurate) feeling that the law belonged to the ruling class. In Utah, where he is threatened with a legalized execution on trumped-up charges, Stellios would face not a hangman but a firing squad, like the one that killed Joe Hill in that era.
Meanwhile, Manolis has crossed the ocean in hot pursuit, seeking to take a life for a life. The heat dies down a bit when he experiences his first Chicago winter and begins to realize how hard it is to find a murderer whose only known address is "America." Besides, there are distractions, such as the widow who owns the bakery where he works, and the teen-age daughter of a Greek priest he met on the boat coming over. She writes to him regularly from her new home, a mining town in Utah, where her father is the resident priest and her older sister is engaged to marry a young union organizer. Perhaps America is not, after all, such a big hiding place for a murderer.
By the time the pursuer and the pursued can have their fated meeting, the situation has changed drastically; neither is any longer the man he was when the game of cat and mouse began several years earlier. Will Stellios be allowed to live? Can Manolis escape the age-old conditioning of his society and the pressure from his family? Does the move to America mean a new life for these and other immigrants, or is it simply a new background for old hatreds and prehistoric customs?
En route to this question, which brings his book to a shattering and unexpected though logical climax, the author takes his reader through some unfamiliar, interesting landscapes and backgrounds, which he has populated with a wealth of colorful and believable characters.
The quality Petrakis has that makes him different from most other American novelists is his ability to give his stories an epic, mythic atmosphere, apparently without even trying, when he is writing about ordinary people in everyday situations. That quality distinguished "A Dream of Kings," which is probably his best-known work, and it can be felt also in "Days of Vengeance." This is not exactly one of the classics of our time, but it is a well-crafted novel that keeps the reader going eagerly from one page to the next and also conveys the sense that human life has important, unseen dimensions.