Those of us who have enjoyed Olen Steinhauer’s Eastern European crime series continue to be perplexed by their failure to break out into mainstream success. Although the books have been shortlisted for a variety of awards, they seem unable to break free of their genre label and reach the larger audience they deserve.
This week marks the release of the fifth and final book in the series, Victory Square. Appropriately, the book not only brings the series full circle by again featuring the lead character from the first book, but it also brings Steinhauer back to the subject of his first attempts as a novelist.
After getting his MFA and spending a year in Romania on a Fulbright scholarship Steinhauer returned to finish what he hoped would be his first novel. The resulting manuscript – a “sprawling epic” set during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 – revealed enough talent to spark some interest but it clearly needed work. Agents asked: got anything else?
The answer was yes. Inspired by reading Raymond Chandler, and his time in Romania, Steinhauer had decided to write a “straight story” something that didn’t set out to be the “experimental” novel of a recent MFA grad. This non-experimental experiment became The Bridge of Sighs a hardboiled detective story set in an unnamed country in communist occupied post-war Eastern Europe.
As it turned out, Bridge of Sighs was the first in a five book series centered on the homicide division of the People’s Militia in this unnamed country. Each book focuses on a new character and brings us forward a decade. In Bridge of Sighs Emil Brod is a 22-year old rookie investigating his first case, the murder of a popular national songwriter, when he uncovers evidence that a party leader worked for the Gestapo during the war. He ends up marrying the songwriter’s widow and sending his killer, the disgraced party leader, to a labor camp.
Victory Square, the fifth and final book, returns the focus on Emil and brings the series to a close. And it also brings Steinhauer back to the subject of that first manuscript: the revolutionary year of 1989 in a country very much like Romania.
Emil, now homicide chief, is called by the Ministry for State Security to complete the paper work for an apparent heart attack of one of their officers The stubbornly persistent Emil, however, uncovers evidence of foul play and a list of six people all connected to the very first case of his career. Two of the six have recently turned up murdered and the party leader Emil had sent away has disappeared. The other important name on the list? His own.
This mystery soon leads Emil on a desperate search to find out the truth while his country struggles to throw off its oppressive government. As the mystery unravels, however, Emil finds that the two are inter-connected; that this forty-year-old case involves both his past and the future of his country. When personal tragedy strikes Emil finds he cares about only one thing: revenge.
In the end Emil must figure out what matters when the world is crumbling around him. The society he has lived in all of his adult life is falling apart and he isn’t sure what is going to take its place. His personal life is in shambles as the secrets and deceptions of the past come back to haunt him – as the mistakes, his own and other’s, become clear and the bodies pile up. As he laments: “That’s the problem with revenge, everyone around you pays.”
As everything is stripped bare Emil begins to realize the things he loves about his country and the moments with friends and loved ones he should have cherished more fully. He realizes that those moments can slip through your fingers and be forgotten if you aren’t careful; it is easy to lose your perspective about what’s important.
It might be tempting to label Victory Square, and the series as a whole, as just another police procedural in a unique setting. But, as I noted here previously, the books are in fact more literary than their genre informed covers might indicate.
They strike me as almost cultural anthropology through fiction. Steinhauer uses the pressurized culture and history of Cold War Eastern Europe to explore life in totalitarian societies. What happens to communities, marriages, friendships, art, etc. when it is under the constant watch of a hyper-politicized and brutalized system? He is both telling a story and asking questions.
But the stories are not just about history or politics either – they aren’t simply sociology dressed up as fiction – they are about what all good literature is about: human nature. Their aesthetic power comes from the artfully drawn characters and the insightfully explored emotions. The setting may be exotic and the history may be unique but fundamentally these are human dilemmas that we can all relate to: love and betrayal, conflicting loyalties, career pressures, family dynamics, questions about fate and the future.
Steinhauer, who currently resides in Hungary, brings a dark Slavic humor to these stories but Victory Square is not without a sliver of hope as befits a story about the throwing off of dictatorship. The victims of communism finally have a say about the future of their country. But he also explores how events like those of that fateful year that we rightfully celebrate can be corrupted and compromised by the flawed human beings involved.
Victory Square is an exciting and thought provoking fictional portrayal of the historic events of 1989. It is both a suspenseful espionage thriller with enough twists and turns – and surprises and betrayals – to keep you frantically turning the pages and an insightful meditation on the corruption and compromise that comes with totalitarianism; and the difficult personal choices such a system involves.
Olen Steinhauer has brought this series to a successful conclusion and should add to his deserved high reputation among critics. If you haven’t yet discovered this gem of a series, I can’t recommend them enough. Anyone with an interest in the Cold War would be foolish to miss out, but they are much more than simply Cold War spy books. Let’s hope that this final book helps get that message out.