After opening with two politically charged police procedurals, Olen Steinhauer’s epic Cold War series transitions squarely to espionage in volume three, 36 Yalta Boulevard (2005). This one abandons the Capitol of his unnamed Soviet satellite for the first time, as it follows the journey of Brano Sev, a loyal State Security agent and die-hard socialist. Sev spent most of the first two books as a sinister presence lurking in the background of the Homicide department, keeping the detectives under his watchful eye. Eleven years have passed since the The Confession, and Sev’s career has taken a number of turns, including a disastrous posting to Vienna, where he briefly served as the resident intelligence officer. After a prologue explaining his career demise, he begins the story of 36 Yalta Boulevard out of the game, demoted and exiled to a factory job.
But he soon receives a new call to duty, and is sent to his rural home town to investigate the inexplicable reappearance of a defector. Sev obediently carries out his orders while renewing family ties in the quaint, provincial town of his youth. But the simple, quiet assignment erupts into violence, and he soon finds himself under suspicion by the local authorities. Sev, ever the instrument of the state, knows he’s being leveraged to some purpose by unknown forces. But who is pulling the strings: his own superiors, or western agents?
The first two books of this sequence were dark, eloquent character studies depicting life under socialist tyranny, structured as fairly conventional — if superbly executed and complex — murder mysteries. 36 Yalta Boulevard, on the other hand, feels closer to the convoluted plot-driven intrigues of the Milo Weaver series. In that sense, it feels more mechanistic, but it maintains world-building continuity and stays true to the oppressive ambience of the earlier books, while propelling the series into new territory. Also contributing to the distinctly different feel is Brano Sev, a uniquely sympathetic protagonist. Steinhauer does a great job getting into Sev’s head, making a heretofore villainous character into a relatable protagonist. It’s another impressive trick, and contributes to another strong outing in this series.