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the bridge of sighs

11 january 2014

There is a robust genre of historical crime novels set in wartorn 20th-century Europe. But since I don't know much about that genre, Olen Steinhauer's excellent Bridge of Sighs reminded me most of China Miéville's City & the City or the novels of Håkan Nesser: police procedurals set in imaginary European countries. It's a smaller genre, but an intensely interesting one.

The Bridge of Sighs takes place in an unnamed imaginary nation – I guess right about where Ruthenia would be if Ruthenia had ever been a sovereign state. The setting is an otherwise real 1948. The Capital where most of the novel's action occurs is a crossroads of Europe seeing heavy traffic. A beloved Leader of dubious achievement has set himself up as the people's choice when he's mainly Stalin's. War and Holocaust have washed over the world; the past is embarrassing, the present unpleasant, and the future grim.

Emil Brod leaves police academy and joins the central homicide desk in the Capital. He reminds me of Mark-Alem in Ismail Kadare's Palace of Dreams. A talented and contemplative kid, he's joined a bureaucracy that hides secrets nobody should ever have to look into. Just because he's a kid, he's given as his first case a murder mystery that may cost him his life if he looks too deeply. He looks way too deeply.

Although the novel is now 11 years old and has had numerous sequels, I shouldn't spoil it by divulging too much plot here. Suffice to say that Emil will dodge bullets, fall in love, challenge the pillars of the new Communist state, and make a momentous trip to both sectors of divided Berlin during the Airlift.

The title refers to a bridge in Venice, where none of the main characters ever seem to have been; it's a bit of misdirection bordering on irrelevance. Of course, much of the fictional state evoked by Steinhauer proceeds by means of misdirection. Nobody is who they seem, except for Emil's idealistic, ignorant, violent old grandfather, whose early and unshakable attachment to Communism is Emil's meal ticket in the new regime.

The main plot, part murder mystery and part political thriller, is exciting. Its one flaw might be that the implacable villains who kill lots of people in their path never manage to kill Emil, despite leaving him for dead on several occasions. (One of them wryly jokes that he's killed Emil twice already, and sooner or later it will have to take.) Heroes of Krimis should have plenty of narrow misses of their maker, but at a certain point we don't believe their enemies are all that tough if they keep missing.

Steinhauer, Olen. The Bridge of Sighs. New York: St. Martin's, 2003.