Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer

In the course of reviewing Olen Steinhauer’s last novel, 36 Yalta Boulevard, I had this to say about his Eastern European crime series:

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 there 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.

I guess I should quit being surprised that Olen keeps meeting – and exceeding – my expectations because he has done it consistently. And his latest work, Liberation Movements, is no exception.

I mentioned previously that Liberation Movements is my must read book of the year so far. As is obvious from the above quote, I have enjoyed the previous books in this series (see Bridge of Sighs, The Confession, and 36 Yalta Boulevard) but I really believe this latest work takes it to another level. The well developed characters, the tight prose, the quick pacing and suspense all combine with a philosophical depth to create a near perfect reading experience.

Here is how the book flap sets up the story:

The year is 1975, and one of the Peoples Militia homicide investigators is on a plane out of the capital, bound for Istanbul. The plane is hijacked by Armenian terrorists, but before the Turkish authorities can fulfill their demands, the plane explodes in midair. Two investigators – a secret policeman and a homicide detective – are assigned to the case. Both believe that their superiors are keeping them in the dark, but they can’t figure out why. Until they learn that everything is connected to a seven-year-old murder, a seemingly insignificant killing that has had far-reaching consequences.

Brano Sev, the central character from 36 Yalta Boulevard, again plays a role but mostly in the background this time. He is supervising the investigation noted above. Captain Gavra Noukas is the sentimental – and in the closet homosexual – apprentice to Sev. Katja Drodova is the People’s Militia homicide investigator. Each of them is very much on a “need to know” basis on the case. They are convinced that Sev is withholding information to keep them in the dark and play them off each other.

The third leg of this plot stool is Peter Husak. Peter is a student caught up in the Russian suppression of the Prague revolution in 1968. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape Prague (in which his two companions were killed because of his mistakes) Peter is picked up by the authorities and eventually agrees to provide information about his fellow counter-revolutionaries. Looking for a way forward – a way toward a successful life – Peter chooses to take the life of a young Russian soldier. This cold blooded murder changes not only his life but Garva and Kratja’s as well.

The story jumps between the events leading up to the hijacking and the resulting investigation and Peter’s story seven years earlier. The chapters are short and fast paced. At first each character and story line seems unrelated, but as Steinhauer begins to weave the various elements together the suspense and the pace builds. It didn’t take too long for me to be hooked. I found myself feverishly reading trying to figure out the clues and unlock the mystery.

What unifies each character, besides their connection to the murder investigation, is their search for meaning in the seeming unrelated events that have led them to where they are. Not only are they trying to unravel the mystery of the hijacking but they are also wrestling with where their life is going; with how they got here and why. This theme is also highlighted by the use of a character that may or may not be able to predict the future.

Do we truly have free will or do outside forces and the predetermined course of events carry us along? Is each choice we face an opportunity to set a different course or do some choices determine the path our life will take? Will one bad choice mar our lives or do we have a chance for redemption (or revenge)? These are some of the philosophical questions that are the undercurrent of the story. They are subtly weaved into the plot so they don’t awkwardly intrude, but they bounce around in your mind as you are reading. Steinhauer doesn’t give any answers but he asks some powerful questions.

In case the above hasn’t made it clear, I found Liberation Movements to be a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining book. Two reasons stick out:

1) The characters. The characters really drive the story and Steinhauer allows the reader to get inside their heads. He manages to keep the reader focused on the “now” of the story and yet keep the tension and pace moving forward. In other words, each character feels fully developed rather than just a stock piece needed to make the plot work; their actions flow naturally. Surprisingly, this is done without pages of backstory and exposition.

2) The quick pace. It doesn’t take long before Steinhauer has you sucked into the story. Short, tightly written chapters push the story forward and as events unfold the tension builds. But this is done without losing the style and power of the previous books. Although the pace is quicker you still get the feeling of visiting a foreign country and of getting a glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants of this fictional, yet seemingly real, place. It has the structure in some ways of an airport paperback but has the style and depth of a literary novel.

Olen Steinhauer has quickly become one of my favorite authors (and blogger). I highly recommend his books to anyone. Whether you like history, crime fiction, espionage thrillers, literary novels or all of the above you will enjoy his skillful and evocative stories. Liberation Movements is his best book yet, and a work that I hope gains the recognition that it deserves.

So if you haven’t had a chance to read this great series, I highly recommend you get started.

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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