Those of us who have enjoyed Olen Steinhauer’s Eastern European crime series continue to be perplexed by its failure to break out into mainstream success. Although his 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.
Last month marked the release of the fifth and final book in the series, Victory Square.
The novel is a capstone to a long project that was also, at first, its beginning. After he had earned an MFA and spent a year in Romania on a Fulbright, Steinhauer returned to the states 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 the crime novelist Raymond Chandler and his time in Romania, Steinhauer had decided to write a “straight story,” one 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.
Bridge of Sighs became the first in a five-book series centered on the homicide division of this unnamed country’s “People’s Militia.” With each book, we meet a new central character and are brought forward a decade. Bridge of Sighs cast Emil Brod as 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.
While the three intervening books have introduced us to new protagonists, Victory Square returns to Bridge of Sighs’ protagonist, 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 on 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 been murdered, and the party leader Emil had sent away to labor camp 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 cases are connected, that this forty-year-old case involves both his past and the future of his country.
Ultimately, personal tragedy strikes Emil, and he finds he cares about only one thing: revenge. A state servant all his life, Emil must figure out what matters as the society he has lived in all of his adult life collapses around him. His personal life is in shambles by the secrets and deceptions of the past that come back to haunt him. As he laments, “That’s the problem with revenge, everyone around you pays.”
It might be tempting to label Victory Square, and the series as a whole, as just another police story in a unique setting. But the books are more literary than their genre-informed covers might indicate, almost pieces of cultural anthropology through fiction. Steinhauer uses the pressurized culture and history of Cold War Eastern Europe to explore life in totalitarian societies. His novels ask: What happens to communities, marriages, friendships, art, etc. when it is under the constant watch of a hyper-politicized and brutalized system?
The stories are not just about history or politics, either; they are about what all good literature is about: human nature. Their aesthetic power comes from artfully drawn characters and 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 the throwing off of dictatorship is Victory Square’s silver lining. The victims of communism finally have a say about the future of their country. But even so, Steinhauer explores how events like those of 1989 can be compromised by the flawed human beings involved.
Victory Square is an exciting and thought-provoking fictional portrayal of historic events, as well as a meditation on the personal corruption that pervades totalitarianism. It is both a suspenseful espionage thriller with enough twists and turns — and surprises and betrayals — to keep you frantically turning the pages.
Olen Steinhauer has brought his series to a successful conclusion, and Victory Square should add to his deservedly 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 novels. Let’s hope that this final book helps get that message out.
–Kevin Holtsberry is a freelance writer in Ohio.