A review of Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Some years ago I chanced upon one of Olen Steinhauer’s excellent contemporary spy stories, sped through it and read another, and finally, in searching for more of his work, found his five-novel cycle set in a fictional Central European country nestled among Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria. (Geographically, the country has to be Slovakia, which only recently gained its independence, but some readers think it more closely resembles Hungary.) Steinhauer’s cycle spanned the years from 1948, when the Soviet Empire consolidated its hold on the nations directly to its West, until 1990, when the USSR and the Warsaw Pact collapsed.
Victory Square is the fifth and final novel in Steinhauer’s Eastern European cycle, and in some ways it’s the best. Steinhauer, an American who has lived for extended periods in several countries in the region, spent months, perhaps years, meticulously researching the fall of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. That history forms the basis of the events that unfold in the novel in 1989-90. Against this background, Steinhauer introduces us to an aging homicide cop, Emil Brod, now Chief of the Militia, whom we met as a young rookie when he joined the Militia’s Homicide Squad in the country’s capital in 1948. Brod was the protagonist of the first novel in the cycle, The Bridge of Sighs, and has popped up throughout. Now just days from retirement, Brod is forced to contend with an unraveling government, a series of shocking murders, a best friend engaged at the very center of the revolutionary movement, and an adoring wife even older than he who wants him to leave the capital early, before the inevitable explosion.
The full cycle includes the following (with titles linked to my reviews):
- The Bridge of Sighs (2003), featuring Emil Brod in 1948
- The Confession (2004), centering on Brod’s colleague, Ferenc Kolyeszar, taking place in 1956
- 36 Yalta Boulevard (2005), featuring Brano Sev, the secret policeman who works in the Homicide Department and spies on the squad, set in 1966–1967
- Liberation Movements (2006), featuring Brano Sev and Brod’s young colleagues, Katja Drdova and Gavra Noukas, taking place in 1968 and 1975
- Victory Square (2007)
Together, these five novels constitute a superb introduction to life in Central Europe during the half-century of Soviet domination. Nonfiction couldn’t possibly match the depth of feeling that emerges from these works.