Tag Archives: eastern Europe

Lies, Lies, Lies

Requiem for a Gypsy: A Commander Jana Matinova Investigation by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime; $25.00; 356 pages)

“The nearsightedness created by self-importance would always get in the way of finding evidence, particularly in a case like this.”

Commander Jana Matinova of the Bratislava police force is faced with lies, trickery, gunfire and a manipulative, but adorable, teenage girl named Em in her most recent appearance in Michael Genelin’s mystery series set in Eastern Europe, Requiem for a Gypsy.   Commander Matinova, Em and Prosecutor Truchanova are seriously outnumbered by the male characters in this somewhat dark tale of hubris and greed.   They may be outnumbered, but they are not timid or shy.

The first death of the book, a hit and run in Paris, sets up the mystery and the second person to die begins what turns out to be a killing spree.   The shooting victim, Klara Bogan, and her husband Oto are the hosts of a name day celebration in Bratislava that is quite lavish by Slovakian standards.   The party is broken up by deadly gunfire followed quickly by the mass exodus of the guests.   To make matters more stressful, Matinova’s superior, Colonel Trokan becomes collateral damage because he has shielded Oto Brogan from the gunfire.

Commander Matinova is thwarted repeatedly as she seeks to determine the name of the intended victim at the party.  She believes that Mrs. Brogan is an unlikely target.   Colonel Trokan is willing to back his commander; however, State secrets and protocols prevent him from giving her the official lead in the investigation.   Enter the arrogant and off-putting sister agencies that are drawn into the story as the killing and deceptions take Matinova on trips around the neighboring countries and even to Paris, France.   As expected, the characters display their power in various ways – wearing uniforms, behaving arrogantly, ignoring Matinova or just shooting each other.   In the latter case powerful gangsters and law enforcement officers are equally involved.

Author Genelin provides a rich mix of regional history and politics as he presents the reader with one red herring after another.   His portrayal of the nasty xenophobia present in Eastern European culture is portrayed well by  his character Georg Repka, who Matinova initially idolizes and later despises when she sees his true nature.

The heaviness of the story is enlivened by Em, who wrangles her way into Matinova’s care and protection by knocking at Matinova’s door in the middle of a snowstorm.   Who can resist a waif-like girl selling earings door-to-door in the cold?   Surely not Matinova who is lonely and misses her granddaughter who lives thousands of miles away in the USA.   Em steals the scene whenever she appears in the story.   Genelin has the ability to set up Em with plausible truths and convenient lies that the reader is hard pressed to differentiate.   His experience as a prosecutor in an earlier time of his life shines through on numerous occasions.   Moreover, his love of the subtle quirks in dining habits and quaint places around Europe are put to good use as mini characters in the story.

The starkness and lack of colorful descriptions, aside from food and beverage, prevalent until nearly the end of the book, keep the reader focused on the interactions of the characters and the aggression that some of them display as an integral part of life in their world.   When Genelin does go into detail about room decor, clothing or symbols of opulence, he reinforces the distance between his heroine’s life and the lives of those she must bring to justice.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Rich in compelling plot twists and sobering history lessons.”   Amazon

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Neanderthal Man

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00, 295 pages)

In the promotional materials, this promised to be a unique look at the first human beings, Cro-Magnons.   It also was said to contain a look at the interactions between Cro-Magnons and their less evolved contemporaries and rivals, the Neanderthals.   Sadly, this survey book fails to deliver on these promises.

The author, Brian Fagan, examines various views of early and pre-human history and then asks, “But what do we know?”   The answer is – not much.   He goes on to apply this answer to the question of when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals first discovered fire.   And as to how and when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interacted, Fagan offers only weak (quite weak) guesses.

On one key point the author has now been shown to be completely wrong.   On the issue of whether Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interbred he states, “Most experts think they did not.”   But the latest research (“Evidence Suggests Early Humans Mated with Neanderthals”) indicates that they did in fact breed with each other, and a small but not insignificant percentage of human beings today – most of whom live in Europe/Eastern Europe – are their direct descendants.

A bigger flaw with this work is that Fagan never humanizes, in a very literal sense, these ancestral creatures.   It is left to Donald Johanson and his exemplary “Lucy” series to make us feel the sense of connectedness lacking in Cro-Magnon.   A major opportunity missed.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

Take Away:  If you’re interested in the beginnings of humankind, two essential books are Lucy: How Our Oldest Human Ancestor Was Discovered – And Who She Was by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster), and Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor by Donald Johanson and James Shreeve (Avon Books).   Dr. Johanson more recently joined with Kate Wong to write Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, which was released in June of this year by Three Rivers Press. 

Joseph Arellano

 

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The Case of the Wrong Place

The Magician’s Accomplice: A Commander Jana Matinova Investigation by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime, 336 pages, $25.00)

It’s a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or is it?   Michael Genelin’s third Commander Jana Matinova mystery novel begins by introducing the reader to a charming, if somewhat opportunistic, starving student.   No sooner does the reader take a liking to the young chap, than poof, he’s gone.   Not in the magical, disappearing sense, more like a bang, you’re dead departure.  

The sinister undercurrent starts with the student’s death at breakfast in the dining room of an elegant Slovakian hotel and gains momentum as another murder takes place within hours, this time at the city prosecutor’s office.   The second  murder is by far the most traumatic for the Commander, as her lover (actually, her would-have-been fiance) is the victim of a telephone bomb.

The story is smoothly depicted in flawless English, somewhat reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s style in her Tuppence and Tommy mysteries.   Genelin draws the reader into his scenes with highly cinematic descriptions of the Eastern Europe locales where the action takes place.   The mystery might well be moonlighting as a sophisticated travelogue.   The cafes and their menus reflect the foods and traditions that make each city unique.   The Magician’s Accomplice is also reminiscent of the 1963 film Charade, starring Audrey Hepburn; however, Commander Matinova is no Audrey Hepburn.   Her character aligns better with Cary Grant’s character, for she’s truly a capable spy/law enforcement officer.

There are no gimmicks, or sleight-of-hand tricks, just dogged pursuit, plenty of worn shoe leather, and characters that are generally not what they appear to be.   The author obviously has first-hand knowledge of bureaucracy and law enforcement.   Each agency depicted in the story contains a full complement of the personalities one would expect to encounter, along with their gossip and tight cliques.

Although the settings are a bit exotic, the calm resolve of the main character is welcome and familiar.   This is not because the book is the third in a series; rather, Commander Matinova is the embodiment of today’s serious professional woman.   Society has come to expect her to suppress her raw emotions in the aftermath of disaster and soldier on.   She is able to carry on admirably as she embarks on an odyssey to placate her boss and secretly search for her lover’s killer.   The commander’s unlikely companion is an elderly magician who insinuates himself into her travels and ultimately aids the hunt for the murderer.

The Magician’s Accomplice is a classic police drama and mystery complete with a fine dedication to principles.   It is a joy to read because author Genelin knows how to write, in the very best sense of the word.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

 

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Dark Dreams

An eastern European detective finds that someone’s left an almost-priceless diamond in her home.   Is she being set up?   Is this connected to her best friend’s role in the current national election, or to a wave of murders?   Author Michael Genelin provides an intriguing setup for this Commander Jane Matinova investigation that has some of the feel of Gorky Park.

Genelin (a friend of this reviewer) is a former prosecutor for Los Angeles County and his knowledge of criminal syndicates is obvious.   In this second in a series of Martinova stories, he makes much of the theme that criminal and political corruption often run parallel to each other, and are sometimes directly related.   Although Jana is a senior police officer and her friend Sofia is a member of the Parliament, almost no one can be trusted in Slovakia.

Matinova is a well-rounded character, perhaps missing a few flaws to make her more real.   Dark Dreams makes for a fast and engaging read with one flaw:  the villain could be identified too early on.   This reader would love to see Mr. Genelin’s knowledge applied to a “Mike Genaro” detective novel set in the sunny and mean streets of L.A.   (Yes, Mike Genaro might serve as the fictional alter ego of the author.) Soho Press, $24.00, 368 pages; Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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