Occasionally, my students ask me what I read for fun. The question makes me smile, because it’s been years since I’ve had much time for recreational reading.
But once in a while, I discover a series of books that makes me remember why I used to enjoy reading—a series that makes me feel like I did when I plowed through novels as a kid, rapaciously seeking plot, desperate to find out only what happened next. A few months ago, I lucked out: I stumbled across the blog of author Olen Steinhauer, discovered his Yalta Boulevard series, and was hooked.
Steinhauer’s five novels center on a squad of homicide investigators who work in the capital of an unnamed Soviet Bloc country, a two-bit nation that seems to border every other Eastern European country while not fully resembling any one of them. The first novel, The Bridge of Sighs, is set in 1948; each subsequent novel leaps ahead a decade to tell the story of a different character. The fifth and final book, Victory Square, comes out today; it’s set in 1989, as the detective from the first book prepares to retire, and as the nation Steinhauer built in four previous novels begins to crumble.
Last week, the New York Times referred to Steinhauer’s “grim but fascinating police procedurals,” but that description, even in the context of a positive review, makes the Yalta Boulevard novels sound more beholden to the conventions of the genre than they actually are. The murder investigations are rarely the actual subjects of the story; often, the usual crimes fade into the background, giving way to worse transgressions, terrible choices, and mordant tributes to the people who endured Eastern European communism—”the puppets of history,” as one character explains in The Confession, “playing out a tragedy.” With their carefully crafted dialogue, relentlessly Slavic mood, and complex, fatalistic characters, the Yalta Boulevard novels remind me of the terrific 1990s TV show Homicide—which, most of the time, wasn’t about police procedure either.
If the constraints of so-called literary fiction weren’t so narrow, and if its readers were less terrified of being seen as slumming, Steinhauer’s books—especially The Confession and Liberation Movements, his two best—would garner more than 150 words in the Times. Those blurry spy-thriller covers probably dissuade book-browsers who aren’t naturally drawn to the genre, and few people these days are clamoring for Cold War novels. So be it—but those realities only further ensure that the Yalta Boulevard novels are elegies to overlooked places and times. Memorable, engrossing, and frequently sad, they’re also top-notch work by a novelist who isn’t really writing genre fiction at all.
[Disclosure: I’ve never met Olen Steinhauer, I’ve never exchanged a single e-mail with him, we don’t share a publisher, and to my knowledge we have no publishing contacts in common. Just in case anyone was wondering.]