Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer (trade $13.95) (c2003)

I'd like "The Volga Boatman" to be playing in the background as you read this review, please.

This is a novel rife with Eastern European despair. Another one. I think I've read more than my share within the last few months. It's time for you to take up the burden. I'm going to be re-reading Janet Evanovich for a while.

Burden. Repression. Devotion. Aaarrgh. Let's all run screaming from the room now, because there's no hope, there's no light at the end of the post-WWII fracturing Eastern European tunnel.

Now that I have that out of my system, I can return to the review.

Actually, this is an interesting book, an Edgar Award finalist, even.

The story takes place in 1948 in an unnamed Eastern European country, bitten off perhaps from Romania or Hungary. There was corruption and repression under the monarchy before WWII, and there is still corruption and repression now that the country has been "liberated" by the Communists. Emil Brod is a brand new detective with the People's Militia. Emil's family's history is tragic and probably representative of so many of the real stories from that era. War pushed his family apart: his parents were killed in separate battle incidents, and his grandparents took young Emil to the starving countryside where both Jews and non-Jews were fleeing. When Emil was a little older, he ran away from the fighting but wound up on a seal boat in the Arctic where life was perhaps even harsher, bleaker, and more treacherous than on the frontlines of the war. This is the history that Emil brings with him to the police station on his first day.

Inexplicably, Emil is met by hostile silence from his fellow officers. Then he is assigned a hot potato of a political homicide. As he ventures to solve the case, we see through Emil's eyes the decadence, resignation, and paranoia that have descended on his fellow citizens. Russian soldiers are everywhere and it is obvious his country is again captive. The murder merely serves as a vehicle so Steinhauer can give us a history lesson, which was fine with me. That part I found fascinating.

But Emil suffers. He suffers excessively. Too much. Enough already. And the romance? What was his attraction? What was hers? Explain. Is it the 9/11 phenomenon? In the face of death and despair, people choose life and love and do wacky things? Maybe don't explain. No romance would have done just as well and not interrupted a fine telling of a trying time.

This is the first in a five-book series by American author Olen Steinhauer that follows Emil and his fellow officers through the decades from just after World War II through to the 1980s.

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