Thoughts on Steinhauer's People's Militia Series

I mentinoned previously that I planned to re-read Olen Steinhauer’s People’s Miltia series in order to fully apprciate the final book in that series Victory Square. Having done so, I wanted to offer some thought on the series as a whole prior to posting my review of the last book.

In thinking about the series I keep coming back to something I wrote in my review of 36 Yalta Bouevard:

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.

This is indeed the appeal of this fascinating series. There is always more than meets the eye.

Each book is a tweak on a particular style or genre: Bridge of Sighs is a hard boiled detective novel a la Raymond Chandler; The Confession is a police procedural; 36 Yalta Boulevard is a classic espionage fiction; while Liberation Movements is more international spy/suspense thriller. Steinhauer’s unique twist has them all set in an imaginary Eastern European country during the Cold War.

But each book is much more than its genre. Each also involves psychological realism and explorations of themes that are usually considered more literary. For example, each book explores how a character comes to terms with life behind the Iron Curtain and their own particular choices.

In Bridge of Sighs Emil Brod is seeking to find a place where he belongs; something he can commit his life and loyalties to. It centers on the feeling of being trapped in a life you did not choose and the resulting mix of anger and despair. The Confession involves Ferenc Kolyeszar’s struggles as a writer in an oppressive totalitarian state as well as a man struggling with a marriage that seems to have gone cold. Yalta Boulevard focuses on Brano Sev’s dilemma surrounding the quest that has given his life meaning – working to protect socialism. Can he imagine a life outside his homeland? Can he follow love if it means rejecting his career and his country? In Liberation Movements the characters are all attempting to understand the path their lives have taken and whether they had any real choices. They wrestle with concepts like fate and free will and wonder if it is too late to change.

In this way, each book has greater depth and insight than you might expect to find in your typical mystery or thriller. The issues touched on are far more than just added color or plot points. The project strikes me almost as cultural anthropology through fiction. Steinhauer uses the pressurized culture and history of Eastern Europe during the Cold War to explore what life is like in totalitarian societies. What happens to communities, marriages, friendships, art, etc. when it is under the constant watch of a hyper-politicized and brutalized system? He is both telling a story and asking questions.

But the stories are not just about history or politics – they aren’t simply fiction dressed up sociology – they are about what it means to be human. Their power comes from the artfully drawn characters and the insightfully explored emotions. The setting may be exotic and the history may be unique but fundamentally these are human dilemmas that we can all relate to: love, betrayal, conflicting loyalties, career pressures, family dynamics, questions about fate and the future.

For me – with my sort of “conservative humanism” – Steinhauer offers a perfect blend of artistic talent and philosophical depth. You can enjoy the aesthetic elements – the way he blends and tweaks traditional genre’s within his own uniquely drawn setting; the way he artfully creates and manipulates characters both within and across the books; the way he experiments with different perspectives and writing styles – without giving up the deeper explorations you look for in traditional novels.

All of the above are true of each book as a stand alone but are more fully played out across the entire series. For example, I found it interesting how Brano Sev’s character plays out. In the first two books Sev is a man who knows where his loyalties lie and who is ruthless about doing his job; he is the ominous symbol of the secret police. It is hard to build any sympathy for him. And yet, in 36 Yalta Boulevard Steinhauer manages to situate him in such a way that you begin to understand why he is the way he is; begin to see him as a human being rather than just a stock character – the shifty, hardened and manipulative secret service agent.

But just when you think you have a handle on Sev, he is back to manipulating things in Liberation Movements and even more secrets are revealed in Victory Square. Steinhauer’s characters are three dimensional and have complex conflicting motivations; like real people. He doesn’t fall into lazy characterization or stereotypes.

But each book also brings something new as well. Each book has a different perspective, style, tone, and pace. Steinhauer is not a one trick pony finding a template and repeating it.

As the above has made clear, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this series and it held up remarkable well. There is enough depth to the stories and the characters that knowing the plot doesn’t ruin the enjoyment. And as I have often remarked, I am continually puzzled by the lack of popular success of these books.

Liberation Movements is one of the best books I have read in recent memory – in any genre. It is a highly entertaining and fast paced thriller that still manages to capture complex characters and wrestle with difficult issues. Granted its setting and subject have always been fascinating to me, but given when makes the best seller lists these days it is a shame more people haven’t read Steinhauer. If you haven’t yet done so yourself, I highly recommend reading this series.

Look for my review of the final volume in this great series in the coming days.

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).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.