THE CONFESSION by Olen Steinhauer
Minotaur Books; (March 10, 2005), 336 pages
The Confession is the second book in the author’s series of life behind the Iron Curtain. Taking place in a nameless Eastern European country, the series’ stars are the men of a state militia police force – all of whom wrestle to some degree with their jobs and their conscience. This book’s protagonist is Ferenc Kolyeszar, a homicide detective and part-time writer, and who played a minor role in the series’ previous entry, The Bridge of Sighs. These books are part mystery, part police procedural and part a narrative of the oppression and machinations under a communist regime – all somewhat reminiscent of the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith. Although these books are extremely well-written – particularly in painting “scenes” – I find the characters and the story-lines/plots missing a spark – being both predictable and somewhat stale.
This book opens in 1956 with cracks developing in the Iron Curtain – specifically the uprising in Hungary and the release of dissidents from the communist work camps/prisons. With all this “change” in the air, life still goes on for our police force and our hero, Ferenc. Back at the station house he is tasked with “solving” both the disappearance of the young wife of a Party member, and the apparent suicide of a has-been member of the underground art world. To add to the mix, an emissary from Moscow shows up to keep an eye on Ferenc and his peers, providing “direction” when necessary when dealing with the inevitable protests from the “crack” in the curtain mentioned above. This “from the top” presence only adding one more level of paranoia to the police department’s day to day existence. In the not so distant background Ferenc is also wrestling with his all but failed marriage.
Our hero is personally involved in all of the above – at times acting as judge, jury and executioner – all the while looking over his shoulder. There is a lot of the proverbial spaghetti thrown at the wall here - with a multitude of sub-plots, twists and turns – and although some of it sticks to the wall, it also dries quickly. As stated the descriptive writing is excellent; the author brilliantly portraying the dismal existence inside of prison camps, the terror of being called in for “questioning” by the authorities, and even the underground art world party scene. Unfortunately I was disappointed with both the lack of depth of the characters and the predictable story-line – which all conveniently ties together at the conclusion. As wonderful as the attention to detail is – this is still a story we’ve seen/read many times before. (While reading The Confession and Bridge Of Sighs I couldn’t help but make the comparison of witnessing a talented movie director working with a mediocre script.)
Good but not great.
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