Sunday, November 01, 2009

Reading Michael Genelin, Alan Furst, and Other Dark Thoughts

As generations, we may sometimes be defined by the wars or acts of war that have shaped our thinking. Many of my friends shaped their ideas of life by testing them during the Vietnam War: Is government trustworthy? Are political leaders honest? How responsible does a reader have to be in testing what's in print?

My son's generation, I suspect, is scarred in the same way by the 9/11 Attack Against America -- and the political and cultural responses to America's newly perceived vulnerability.

But these are very much American experiences, American ideas. I don't expect to "see Europe" as my father's generation did, or to explore Asia as my sons do and will. So the mysteries that I read often shape my thinking about those regions and their histories, cultures, and people.

My sense of England's recent heritage (forget Robin Hood and Shakespeare) draws in part from the Great War mysteries of Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear, not to mention John Lawton and Christopher Fowler for the grimmer side of things. I always order the newest Donna Leon to sample Venice, and Giles Blunt for northern Canada. I have enough good sense to doubt that Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is more valid than, say, Peter Mathiessen's African travelogues -- but I still enjoy the notion of common people solving human dilemmas through common sense. And I won't even try to talk about the sustained darkness of the current crop of Scandinavian detectives and tales, from Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, and others.

Way beyond these explorations, though, is the complex and often grim history of Eastern Europe, a region that must have been fiercely present to my father's generation (those who saw World War II firsthand) but has quietly vanished along with the Cold War for today's Americans. Most of the people I know personally who talk about Slovenia or Hungary are tourists, happy to spend American dollars where they seem to buy more.

Alan Furst's review of Kati Marton's ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE in today's New York Times begins, "The year is 1955; most of the world has taken sides in the cold war." Marton's book explores her parents' desperate lives in Cold War Hungary and "has all the magnetism and, yes, excitement, of the very best spy fiction. But would that it were fiction."

Furst writes this from his position as author of ten fierce and wonderful books of "spy fiction" set in Eastern Europe, most recently THE SPIES OF WARSAW, which went into paperback in June of this year. Like the memoirist, he's lived in the countries where he sets his fiction, although not for long periods of time (Paris is his outside-America home). And he writes from having known the people and cultures that were once behind the Iron Curtain, where the machinations of the Communist Party bred a desperate corruption necessary to sustain life.

It's uncomfortable reading. Although I'm often moved and always, in the end, deeply satisfied with Furst's plots and characters and their efforts to trade what they can afford to lose, for the integrity they desire, these are books that I face seriously. They're not beach reading. They demand that I question my own willingness to sacrifice for ideals like democracy and freedom of the press, as well as for the safety of my family.

Forgive, please, this long approach -- but what the latest mysteries of Eastern Europe demand has slowed me down in reaching a review of Michael Genelin's first two books with Soho Crime: SIREN OF THE WATERS (2008) and DARK DREAMS (2009).

Genelin introduces Commander Jana Matinova, an often lonely investigator on the police force in Slovakia. Estranged from her rebel husband (an outlaw for his political stance, at the very least) and from her daughter, she labors under conditions of post-communist mistrust, betrayal, and a coldness that is more than the subzero wind sweeping through her state-issue coat. Each advance in her cases comes at personal cost.

In SIREN OF THE WATERS Matinova investigates human trafficking, a commerce of flesh and power that roots in the poverty left behind by uncaring governments. Fear, urgency, and a prevailing sense of being sold out dog her movements. It's hard to say whether she's most at risk from the criminals she chases or from her own colleagues in their equal desperation. How can we like this woman who lies when necessary, sacrifices her family, then abruptly gives up her self-respect in order to save others?

The threads pulled loose from this weave of threat and determination become ragged edges about to unravel in Genelin's sequel, DARK DREAMS. Martinova's career and family, even her life, balance on a knife edge. Her own childhood friend, Sofia, entangles her in bribery and corruption scandals; killings multiply. Soon even her colleagues mistrust her: "Everyone assiduously avoided mentioning Jana's involvement as a possible suspect. They went about their business and, when they had contact with Jana, avoided any topic other than the one at hand. Things were stiff and overly polite, but it could have been much worse. ... Jana used the time to go over her notes."

As crime fiction goes, these stand toward the dark side, not so much for brutality or gore as for the certainty that "home" is a place of danger and loss.

But they are utterly convincing, and I wouldn't miss them for anything. If we are to understand the force of history and the passions of the present in Eastern Europe, Genelin, like Furst, is a valuable guide. And Jana Matinova's courage, and her willingness to keep trying for justice, generate a heat and light worth valuing.

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