October 8, 2012 · 6:44 am
A review of Liberation Movements, by Olen Steinhauer
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Mystery piles atop mystery in this fourth installment of Olen Steinhauer’s five-novel cycle of life behind the Iron Curtain. The previous books were set in decades past, the post-war 40s, 50s, and 60s. In Liberation Movements, the action takes place in 1968 and 1975, relating two seemingly unconnected stories that only much later merge, raising yet more mysterious questions.
Structurally, the plot revolves around Peter Husak and Katja Drdova, the former a Czech student in Prague who reacts with diffidence to the 1968 uprising against Communist rule, the latter a homicide detective in a neighboring country a few years younger than Peter whose story unfolds in 1975. As the action rockets forward through alternating chapters set in these two pivotal years, the connection between them slowly emerges. Along the way, we find ourselves caught up in an airplane hijacking engineered by Armenian terrorists, an investigation of a seemingly trivial seven-year-old murder, and troubling reports of parapsychological research by the secret police, and we catch glimpses of a mysterious secret policeman known to be close to the Lieutenant General who heads the secret police. Truth to tell, it’s monumentally confusing for a long time.
The five members of the homicide department form a loose thread that links all four novels. Though the cast of characters shifts over the years, there is always at least one principal actor who was on the scene in The Bridge of Sighs, the first book in the cycle, set in 1948. In Liberation Movements, the connector is Colonel Brano Sev, the close-mouthed secret policeman who occupies a desk in the homicide department, now an old man with a formidable reputation for toughness and results. (Emil Brod, a rookie in the first book, has become chief of homicide by 1975 but stays in the background.)
Brano Sev plays a central role in Liberation Movements, as does his young protégé, Gavra Noukas, a closeted gay man new to the Militia. Under Brano’s tutelage, Gavra’s life becomes enmeshed in the improbable story of a beautiful young woman with alleged psychic powers and her shadowy handler in the secret police.
Liberation Movements is rich with fully developed characters and the fascinating interplay of seemingly unrelated plotlines. The story of the 1915 Armenian genocide weaves in and out of the tale. Sadly, the book is flawed by the author’s failure to resolve the biggest mystery of all. It’s well worth reading nonetheless, for Steinhauer’s mastery of character development and his sure way with words.
Filed under Detective Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers
Tagged as airplane hijacking, Armenian genocide, Central Europe, Communism, detective fiction, espionage, historical fiction, historical novel, homicide detective, Iron Curtain, Novel, Olen Steinhauer, parapsychology, police, politics, psychic powers, secret police, suspense, thriller
June 13, 2012 · 9:30 am
A review of 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In this, the third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle, we view the world through the eyes of Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in his unnamed Soviet satellite country. Now, nearing 50, Brano has been working for months on the assembly line at a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors pull him out of the factory. temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well. He flees to Vienna, where his long-held beliefs in the Communist system are challenged from all quarters.
36 Yalta Boulevard — the address is that of the security service headquarters in The Capital — continues the story begun in The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, which follows the life and work of the five men who make up the homicide department in The Capital’s police department. (Brano is the secret service spy in their midst.) The first book is set in 1948, the second in 1956, and 36 Yalta Boulevard in 1966-67. Two later novels — Liberation Movements and Victory Square — carry the tale forward into the 1970s and 1980s, thus traversing the entire half-century history of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Now, nearly a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire in Central and Eastern Europe, a new generation is growing up ignorant of the Cold War reality that hung over our lives for as long as most of us over 30 can remember. Olen Steinhauer brings back one important aspect of that reality in these unusually well-crafted books: the life and times of the millions who existed under the varying but always oppressive weight of state socialism — some, like Brano, willingly, even eagerly; others, indifferent or resisting.
Steinhauer has won numerous awards for the novels in this unusually engaging cycle. He deserves more.
Filed under Detective Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers
Tagged as Central Europe, Communism, Eastern Europe, espionage, historical fiction, historical novel, Novel, Olen Steinhauer, police, politics, secret police, Soviet Empire, Soviet Union, state socialism, suspense, thriller, Vienna, World War II
June 11, 2010 · 2:55 pm
A review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
First things first: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is unquestionably the most successful of Stieg Larsson’s three volumes about Lisbeth Salander.
Salander, one of the most extraordinary characters ever to inhabit the printed page, is one of a large cast that includes the author’s fantasy doppelganger, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist; Mikael’s colleagues at Millennium magazine; Lisbeth’s employer and members of his staff; a hefty number of police officers; a crew of secret agents; assorted prosecutors, social workers, and attorneys; Swedish Cabinet members; and a large group of baddies, including the thugs who hang out in a motorcycle club and two members of Lisbeth’s own family.
You might think that such a motley crew of characters could never fit within the confines of a single volume, much less come across as real people. Not so here.
Well, maybe not real people. But the novel works. The suspense will raise your blood pressure. In a word, Hornet’s Nest is unputdownable.
Unlike so many of the complex, multi-character stories I find myself reading, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is easy to navigate. I rarely found myself wondering where or how a minor character had come into the story. Larsson’s writing is so vivid, and his characters so well drawn, that I was able to avoid my usual habit of searching through previous chapters to remind myself who was who.
A novel, like all of history, is a study of change. As Joseph Heller wrote, “Something happens,” and a character (or characters) change as a result. In that sense, the three books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and ending with this long but consistently gripping novel, together constitute a single story. It is only here, in the closing sections of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, that we can see clearly the change that has been wrought in Lisbeth Salander as she passes through the trials by fire spelled out in these three engaging tales.