How does one describe Olen Steinhauer’s debut novel The Bridge of Sighs? Is it a historical novel? Is it crime fiction? Noir? A detective story? Espionage thriller? As you might guess, the answer is all of the above and probably more.
The backstory gives us some clues as to how this fascinating work came together. Steinhauer combined an interest in Eastern Europe and the Cold War with a love of Raymond Chandler and came up with this unique blend of gritty police procedural and insightful cultural observation behind the Iron Curtain:
The idea was to take some elements of the typical hard-boiled thriller, and place them in the dreary world of communism.
And it seemed to work.
Yes, yes it does.
Bridge of Sighs (first in a series) is set in the aftermath of WWII (1948) in an unnamed Eastern European country that has been liberated from the Nazis only to be occupied by the Soviets. The main character, twenty-two year old Emil Brod, finds himself working for the People’s Militia as a homicide detective. Brod is not one of the lucky ones in this world. His parents died in the war and he is forced to live with his grandparents (after a sojourn to Finland to work on the fishing boats). Brod is a complicated mix of eagerness and depression, naviete and hardened youth. Fresh out of the police academy he is happy just to have a job even if he is a little uncomfortable in his freshly starched suit and polished shoes.
Things don’t go well for Emil at the People’s Militia. His co-workers think he is a spy and his boss seems unwilling to even give him work. The first day is spent organizing his desk and trying not to stare at his sullen co-workers.
When he finally gets his first case, however, it leads to nothing but trouble. Powerful men are determined to thwart the investigation and it seems like everyday new bodies show up. But Brod is nothing if not stubborn. And after falling for the original victim’s wife and nearly being killed, the case becomes personal. His determination takes him from the dirty back alleys of the capital to post-war Berlin and back.
The Bridge of Sighs is an example of what “genre” writing can be. It is a gritty, suspenseful, culturally insightful trip back into the dark days of the early Cold War. Instead of the flashy heroes of James Bond or the compromised gray for LeCarre, Steinhauer brings us the hardened determination and near despair of those trying to make a living behind the Iron Curtain.
I look forward to reading the rest of the People’s Militia series as Steinhauer explores other characters in this fascinating setting. If you haven’t yet stumbled on this imaginative new author and series, I highly recommend it.