Sunday, July 10, 2011

REQUIEM FOR A GYPSY: The Fourth Commander Jana Matinova Investigation, from Michael Genelin

This week's best crime fiction news is the release of Michael Genelin's fourth book, REQUIEM FOR A GYPSY. Because the publisher, Soho Crime, is relatively small, you may not see big full-page ads for the book in the national newspapers. And because the setting is Slovakia -- not exactly on the movie-script list of sexy places -- this one probably won't get turned into a TV show or movie in the near future.

Ah, if only it was on the screen: The grainy shots of the bureaucratic leftovers of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. The exotic accents, the challenges for a woman detective, the lure of Paris -- not nearly as far away as its way of life. And best of all, Matinova: impatient with incompetence, willing to nag her own boss into becoming an instant "human shield" in a threatened assassination, isolated by her gender and profession and longing for contact with her distant granddaughter, someone who deeply loves her.

And that's what REQUIEM FOR A GYPSY paints most eloquently. Don't get me wrong, this isn't "literary fiction" and you won't find long, descriptive passages -- just a steady press of plot, motive, and increasing urgency. But in Genelin's hands, Jana Matinova's real longings for an affectionate side of life, an area where she can touch and trust and care, make her vulnerable to a cannily constructed criminal maneuver that soon infiltrates her home, her career, and her thoughts.

The book begins with two deaths: one that takes place in Paris and is linked to Slovakia only through an odd tattoo on the victim, and one of a gypsy boy who has clearly been the victim of a gun accident. Despite her conclusions, though, the boy's family won't accept her decision on the death.
Jana sighed as she closed the door. It was always like that when people abruptly lost a loved one, particularly when it involved a violent ending. There was never enough satisfaction for victims in any investigation or prosecution. There was no way that any police officer could bring the dead back to life or give the relatives of the deceased anything approaching what they really wanted: to see, to hold, to kiss their loved one more time. In that way, every case was unwinnable ...
Then the third direction opens, as Matinova accompanies her boss, Colonel Trokan, to a birthday reception for a ruthless local businessman making his way to international success. "Oto Bogan had mysteriously avoided criminal prosecution and so was still on the 'we can associate with him' list for police officers."

When a well-planned assassination occurs at the party, Jana's attention to the dead gypsy boy, and the tattooed victim whose case has been sent to her from Paris, must end, as she tackles the major case. Yet the team investigating the assassination claims she can't take part, because she's been wounded herself. The involved prosecutor is hiding something. Matinova's going to have to cross national borders herself, to reach police teams who'll be honest with her.

Soon, connections emerge that involve not only two of the three cases, but also Slovakia's disturbing past role in the opening of World War II. And Matinova questions the most important parts of her own existence, while pressing to capture the criminals involved.

I hope you can tell from the material I've quoted that this book has an unusual rhythm to the writing, a hint of Eastern Europe as if caught in a slightly awkward translation. Actually, there are no translators involved -- Michael Genelin graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles, as well as from its law school, and worked for the U.S. State Department in Central Europe, Africa, and Asia, as well as Haiti. But whether this is his natural style of writing, or one crafted to accompany Jana Matinova, it works well to hint at the vast differences in culture that framed this small and violently occupied nation.

Genelin's earlier three books in the series are Siren of the Waters, Dark Dreams, and The Magician's Accomplice. It's not necessary to read them before this new one. On the other hand, if you enjoy REQUIEM FOR A GYPSY the way I have (twice!), you may want them all.

N.B.: It's long past time for American readers to catch up with the status of the Rom -- the gypsies -- in Europe. Genelin's book handles this very differently from the way it enters The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon (2008). Might as well encourage your local bookshop to stock both. That's how we handle it here. Dave is still marveling that our international section of the shop has grown so rapidly in the past five years. Works for me ...

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