Slovakia. Very few of us know anything about this country that emerged from the dissolution of the Communist government of Czechoslovakia. Jana Matinova is a police officer who began her job under Communist rule and who has emerged with her job intact after the political change to a more overtly capitalist state. She is our tour guide and her story, both present and past, illuminates the difficulty of life in this part of the world. The capital city of Bratislava, still recovering from decades of a bleak and impoverished existence, is the host to the murder of a group of people suspected of being involved in human trafficking. According to this novel, Bratislava is at the crossroads for international illegal activity. As the bodies begin to pile up in several countries, Inspector Matinova must assiduously unravel the structure of the organizations struggling for dominance in the lucrative business of prostitutes and black market goods.
I assume from the dust jacket information that Genelin is an American and a native English speaker. I mention this because I think there is a difference in books about foreign cultures written by an English speaker versus a translated book written by someone born to that culture. Genelin writes for an audience that needs to be tutored in the impact Communism has had on ordinary lives. He points out things that a Slovakian wouldn't need to mention to his audience, but that an American would need to know. The bantering one-ups-manship between Matinova and her fellow investigator Levitin, a Russian, is humorous and made accessible to us.
Through the tale of a young Matinova, Genelin gives us the drama of what must be personally sacrificed in order to survive. Matinova's husband is an agitator against the Communists. Matinova, as a police officer, is a de jure representative of the state. Their young daughter Katka is caught in the situation her parents have regrettably created. Their tale, an out-of-control spiraling away from each other, is moving and powerful.
The present-day Matinova serendipitously runs into the man who has married her long-estranged daughter. There is a granddaughter and Matinova longs to see her. Thus, concurrent tales run about Matinova's murder cases and about what caused Matinova's estrangement from her daughter.
Jana Matinova is an attractive character. She is a passionate young wife, a devoted mother, an intelligent and hardworking police officer, and a person whose years of seeing the worst of her society has not undermined her ability to hope and care. Genelin has allowed his readers to understand an area of the world hidden from Western eyes for a long time.
Because I liked the book so much, I requested Michael Genelin for a signing. He will be at Murder by the Book (3210 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, 503-232-9995) on October 23, 2008, at 6:30 p.m.