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Cold War whodunit

The Confession: A Novel; Olen Steinhauer; St. Martin's Minotaur: 326 pp., $24.95

May 09, 2004|Paula L. Woods | Paula L. Woods is a critic and the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series, including "Dirty Laundry."

Olen Steinhauer's first mystery, "The Bridge of Sighs," was set in an unnamed Eastern European bloc country in 1948 and featured the flawed young idealist Emil Brod, a rookie homicide inspector in the People's Militia. Brod, aided by a hostile, dispirited crew of comrades-in-crime-fighting, doggedly pursued a songwriter's killer and his widow in a stunning and unique look at life and crime in a Soviet satellite nation. "The Bridge of Sighs" garnered wide praise, setting high expectations for an anticipated five-book series.

"The Confession" is even more surprising. Emil appears only as a supporting character, the spotlight shifting to Comrade Inspector Ferenc Kolyeszar, an older colleague of Brod's, whose most memorable characteristics from the first novel were his hulking size and affinity for crunching pumpkin seeds. More complex than Emil, Ferenc is a moonlighting writer whose well-received first novel, "The Soldier," was published soon after his return from World War II. Yet for all his initial success and acceptance by his fellow artists, Ferenc is deeply damaged by war and the totalitarian society in which he seeks self-expression.

In Ferenc's foreboding, first-person prologue, the story of his life and times is re-created: "You assemble the picture later, after all the bodies have been examined and the clues tracked down and all the facts have come to light." It is 1956. Stalin has been dead for three years, his legacy of terror denounced in Communist Party congresses in Moscow and the capital of the "eastern edge of Europe" where the novel takes place. In the spirit of reformation, General Secretary Mihai has called for a general amnesty, which has resulted in thousands of political prisoners being released. Banned books are returned to bookstores and libraries, and citizens complain about trash disposal and crime.

Yet despite these and other hopeful developments, rumblings are in the air -- courtesy of broadcasts on banned American radio stations -- that Hungary and Poland have shown signs of revolt. Ferenc reminds us that the "Magyars are setting fire to Comrade Chairman Stalin's posters [and] the Poles made noises and faced tanks on what they call Black Thursday."

These developments unsettle Ferenc, exacerbating his inability to write, his strained 17-year marriage to Magda and his concerns for his teenage daughter. Three weeks at his in-laws' country dacha haven't improved his outlook and have intensified his fears that Magda has returned to the capital early to leave him.

As Ferenc approaches his home, part of a six-story, state-controlled housing block known as Unit 15, he wonders "if she was up there, watching us navigate the holes and turn off the road into the well of shadow.... At least I hoped this with every muscle in my tight, sweating hands."

Although she is not home, Magda has left a note, which Ferenc is elated to discover does not contain news that he has been abandoned but that he is wanted for a case -- the suicide of Josef Maneck, one-time curator of the Museum of National Contemporary Art. Maneck appears to have opened his oven and gassed himself, the last desperate act of a man who has lost his high-profile job and fallen into drunkenness.

But the dead man had been severely beaten some hours before his death, a point that troubles Ferenc's childhood friend and partner on the case, Stefan. Although Ferenc is willing to take the case on face value, Stefan isn't, just as another detective, Leonek Terzian, can't forget the 1946 murder of his longtime partner.

Stefan and Leonek become obsessed with solving their respective cases while Ferenc focuses on more personal fixations: his wife's mysterious absences; the sexual advances of Vera, a writing colleague's aggressive wife; and, most troubling, the sudden arrival of Mikhail Kaminski, a Russian comrade who reeks of the KGB. Ferenc's withdrawal from the Maneck case angers Stefan and prompts a startling confession: Stefan had slept with Magda while Ferenc was away at war. Ferenc worries that she is probably still carrying on the affair.

The confession causes Ferenc to spiral deeper into his own anger and paranoia, making him moody at times but also generous to other colleagues, most notably Leonek, whose mother has just died. Ferenc invites him to a dinner that, he recalls, would begin "something that would unravel so much." Just what Ferenc means is parceled out slowly, as the pages fly by with the disappearance of a party official's wife, Ferenc's sadomasochistic affair with Vera, the reasons behind his wife's absences and several murders. Through it all, the reader discovers these characters' varying levels of guilt and confessions about past and present sins.

At that fateful dinner with Leonek, Ferenc says: "A Frenchman told me recently that plot is dead ... no one is doing it anymore." That could hardly be said of "The Confession," whose plot, merely hinted at here, has more twists than a plate of fusilli and enough characters to fill the next three books in the series. And though the reader might wish for a scorecard to keep up with the cast and body count, "The Confession" is about much more than murder.

With its palpable sense of regret and spent anger, the novel is also one man's chronicle of personal tragedy, the search for artistic freedom and the evils of totalitarianism. "The Confession" is a clever reworking of the police procedural: The narrative-within-a-narrative exposes multiple levels of complicity and guilt that make this an affecting, sobering entry in one of the most inventive series around. *

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