Novel: The Confession by Olen Steinhauer

The second novel in Olen Steinhauer’s Yalta Boulevard Sequence, The Confession (2004), is even better than the first, continuing the series’ gradual transition from crime fiction to espionage.  Each novel in the sequence takes place in a new decade; The Confession lands us in 1956, and considers the impact of the uprising in neighboring Hungary on the series’ fictional European setting.

The protagonist this time out is Ferenc Kolyesar, a homicide division comrade of Emil Brod (the viewpoint characters for The Bridge of Sighs).  Ferenc is a middling detective whose war memoir brought him brief notoriety and a number of artistic friends.  But his second book is long in coming, and meanwhile he’s struggling to keep his family together.  The procedural throughline for Ferenc’s story is the death of a brilliant artist, and it’s a compelling, intricate, and tragic journey, as his investigation snowballs from a simple murder to a series of them, and leads him into the darker political corners of his country’s oppressive communist system.

Again, the historical backdrop appears to be the major inspiration for this series, and the setting is even more strongly realized in this installment. But Steinhauer skillfully layers other satisfying elements over his world-building.  The mystery plot is detailed, meticulous, and ingenius.  The characters, many of them introduced in miniature in A Bridge of Sighs, are more strongly developed and realized here.  (The shift of Emil Brod from a protagonist to a nicely defined supporting character is unusual, and seamlessly executed.) And Ferenc is a compelling protagonist, both sympathetic and selfish.  His unique position as a man with a foot in both worlds — brushing up against line-towing Party members and rebellious artists alike — situates him nicely to explore the era.  The troubles in Hungary have their influence in Steinhauer’s fictional land, transforming Ferenc’s simple case into something decidedly more complex and political.  His personal journey is very much a descent, as the dehumanizing impact of an unjust government gradually takes its toll on him — and everyone around him.

Overall, I found it utterly compelling on every level:  a brilliant procedural mystery, a sinister glimpse at a a dark era of Eastern European history, and a movingly tragic story of personal guilt and responsibility.

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