36 Yalta Boulevard by Olen Steinhauer

If you have been scoring at home you know that I am a fan of Olen Steinhauer’s People’s Militia series. Here is what I said about the first book in the series The Bridge of Sighs:

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.

Steinhauer followed that up with The Confession which I also praised:

It is hard to come up with enough adjectives to describe Steinhauer’s writing: dark, gritty, taut, sharp, etc. It is also difficult to pigeonhole. It is part political mystery, part psychological thriller, part love story, part cultural history. What is clear is that Steinhauer is a first rate talent.

Well, the latest in this great series is 36 Yalta Boulevard and it easily meets the expectations set by the earlier two. What is so captivating and entertaining about Steinhauer is that each book tackles a new character and brings a new perspective. Steinhauer is not just cranking out sequels to make his publisher happy. He is using the history and culture of Eastern Europe as a setting and as a source for an imaginative tweak on a host of genres. Aspects of hard boiled detective story, police procedural, psychological mystery, espionage thriller, and historical fiction are all included as he tells the story of these unique characters.

And yet their is more. Steinhauer explores deeper issues than just who did what, where, and how. Thorny personal, political, and cultural issues are addressed while the mystery unfolds. Taken together they paint a thought provoking portrait of time and place; and yet each work stands satisfyingly on its own. “Literary crime series” may seem like an oxymoron to some, but it seems a perfect description of Steinhauer’s work.

36 Yalta Boulevard is the address of the secret police of the unnamed country that is the setting of the series. Brano Sev, like the other characters in the series, was a homicide detective with the People’s Militia. But unlike his colleagues he was also a member of state security. This role earned him the distrust of his co-workers and a certain distance from those around him. But Sev was always a loyal worker for the state. He did what he was told and didn’t ask questions. That is until he finds himself face down in an Viennese park with partial amnesia and nasty bump on his head.

As if this unsettling occurrence wasn’t enough, when he manages to remember who he is and find his way home, he is fired and sent to work in a factory. Five months later comes another twist: he is asked to return to work for state security. This involves a return to his provincial hometown and the family he has largely ignored since moving to the capital city. Once there he is promptly framed for murder and forced to flea to, you guessed it, Vienna. Throw in an attractive women who claims to love him and a man who may be his long lost father and things get real interesting.

At this point Sev doesn’t know if he is coming or going; who are the good guys, who are the bad guys and which side is he on. And this is the question that underlies the story. Sev is constantly forced to ask himself who he really is and what will be the ramifications of the choices he makes (or whether he really has any choices). Sev’s identity is wrapped up in 36 Yalta Boulevard; that is who he is, what he knows how to do.

Steinhauer sets the mood just right. On one level we have a interesting Robert Ludlum type spy thriller with its twists and turns; punch and counter-punch. On another level we have the deeper question of who we can really trust; whether we can change who we are; or if we can take a radically different path than the one we are on. Is happiness such an easy choice if it means given up a part of ourselves?

Steinhauer doesn’t take the easy path. The plot is neither the simple path of disenchantment and changing loyalty nor is it the blind loyalty to a lost cause; it never quite veers to fatalism but also avoids a false sense of easy hope. As a result it seem more realistic; more reflective of the messy and difficult reality we face.

I have run out of adjectives and descriptions. Olen Steinhauer is simply a first rate writer creating a unique and highly entertaining series. I highly recommend each of his books and can’t wait for the next.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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