The Confession by Olen Steinhauer is the second book in his “People’s Militia” series set in an unnamed Eastern European city during the Cold War. The first book, The Bridge of Sighs focused on Emil Brod and his first case as a homicide inspector in the aftermath of World War Two.
The Confession focuses on Brod’s fellow inspector Ferenc Kolyeszar. In addition to his duties as a homicide detective, Ferenc is also a writer who, thanks to the reception of his first book, moves comfortably within the literary and art communities. As the title indicates, the novel is framed as Ferenc’s confession after having been released from a state run labor camp. Like his previous work The Confession is on one level a mystery/crime novel/police procedural, but it is much more than that. It has a complex and multi-layered plot but it also provides an engrossing portrait of, and insightful commentary on, the effects of the totalitarian political systems of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
Besides dealing with a murder mystery within the art community, Ferenc is also struggling to keep his marriage together and over come a paralyzing case of writer’s block. At the same time other Eastern European countries are experiencing unrest as their citizens demand more freedom setting in motion a showdown with the Soviets. This political upheaval moves to Ferenc’s country and sets up a showdown with a KGB agent assigned to his station. All of these events throw Ferenc’s world into chaos: professionally, personally, and artistically.
Steinhauer weaves all of this into a tension filled and suspenseful brew that he slowly brings to a boil. He captures the violence and fear that is constantly under the surface, and frequently above the surface, in a totalitarian state. He touches on the depressing nature of trying to create art in such a politicized world and on how the fear and distrust breaks down social cohesion and stability. how can you trust your leaders and your fellow citizens when truth is bent to the political wind; when what you say or think may risk your life.
In a particularly sharp section, Ferenc has an affair that veers toward sadomasochism. To some readers this may seem gratuitous, but it showcases the degradation of a police state. The lack of freedom and expression – the cutting off of choice and individuality – removes the pleasures of life. Some seek to feel alive through extreme measures. Ultimately, these measures create more problems than they solve; just like the alcohol that so many use to numb the pain. Steinhauer uses this episode to show how disconnected Ferenc has become from his moral core.
It is hard to come up with enough adjectives to describe Steinhauer’s writing: dark, gritty, taut, sharp, etc. It is also difficult to pigeonhole. It is part political mystery, part psychological thriller, part love story, part cultural history. What is clear is that Steinhauer is a first rate talent. If you have any interest in Cold War Eastern Europe, or if you love unique crime/police procedurals, or if you simply like tight writing and strong characters, you will want to check out Olen Steinhauer. You will be glad you did.
– Read David’s review of The Confession
– Look for my review of the next book in the series, 36 Yalta Boulevard, later this week.