The Confession by Olen Steinhauer

To catch up with the author’s career: The Confession was released last year by St. Martins Press. His first novel, The Bridge of Sighs, was published a few years back; his next, 36 Yalta Boulevard will be released later this year. This Friday review serves a double purpose; one to take a look at the novel, the other to introduce readers to the author. Steinhauer, a native of Texas, lives in Budapest. The setting for The Confession is an unspecified country inside the Iron Curtain. The action occurs during the Fifties. The Soviet invasion of Hungary forms a part of the novel’s backdrop.

The main character, Ferenc Kolyeszar, is a homicide inspector with the State Militia. He and his colleagues are cops, but also part of the machinery of the secret police. The apparent suicide of an alcoholic triggers an investigation that reveals a much larger canvas. Ferenc is dealing with his disintegrating marriage; when he learns that his oldest friend has slept with his wife, Ferenc’s despair finds a focus.

Ferenc is a novelist as well as a policeman. He has friends among the artists and writers in the city, a place referred to only as the Capitol. The atmosphere is infused with the oppression of the era; like many of his countrymen Ferenc survived the German invasion and occupation only to find himself under the heel of the Russians. When a KGB agent named Kaminsky enters the scene it sets up further complications; the Russian seems to have more than a casual interest in Ferenc’s investigation.

Tensions between Ferenc and Kaminsky erupt during a demonstration. Ordered to club protestors Ferenc refuses and turns his rage on the KGB man. The discovery of another murder victim with links to the suicide plunges the cops deeper into the murky past, to the killing of a fellow officer nine years earlier.

The Confession works on several layers of intrigue and drama. Ferenc’s marriage, his career, and his freedom are at stake as the author blends the plotlines with considerable skill. Even more impressive is the use of setting to underscore the dreary malaise of a man struggling to do the right thing under impossible circumstances. The secondary characters are well drawn in the same low key manner the principals are presented. The story’s pacing is deliberate, the wheel turns slowly but inexorably, each event bringing Ferenc closer to the truth. In a repressed society nothing is more dangerous than the truth.

I never compare an author’s work to someone else’s. Olen Steinhauer brings a hint of modern sensibility to the political intrigue he presents, enough to make it his own. I’m looking forward to reading his next novel.