Innocence Or, Murder on Steep Street
Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
Soho Crime, March 2016
This murder mystery was written to disguise a political tract describing the author’s life in Communist Czechoslovakia during which her husband, an ardent party member and an assistant minister of trade, was falsely arrested, jailed and murdered. Both had survived Nazi concentration camps. The form the book takes was to somehow evade the censors and it surreptitiously tells his story as part of the plot, describing one of the characters.
Essentially, the plot revolves around the murder of a detective on a street on which a movie theater is located. There are seven women who serve as ushers, each with a secret life, complicating the investigation into the death. The stories of their lives unfold, together with the secrets they share with each other.
The promotional material recounts the author’s fame as a translator, and especially her love of Raymond Chandler. It is doubtful that this work measures up to his standard of writing, and has to be judged on its own merits. On that level, the reader has to cope with various obfuscations and, of course, the obscure Czech names and places which divert attention. The conclusion is somewhat disappointing and really is somewhat ambiguous, whether by design or inadvertence.
The author really is known for her memoir, Under A Cruel Star, in which she describes her time in Auschwitz and the early years of Communism in her native land. For its historical importance, the present novel deserves to be read.
Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016
A Butch Karp – Marlene Ciampi Thriller #27
Robert K. Tanenbaum
Pocket Books, April 2016
Mass Market Paperback
The customary courtroom drama in the Butch Karp series takes up about half of this novel, but it isn’t as dramatic as most of the prior episodes. Although the legal description is proficient, it is highly technical in nature and less dramatic than many of the previous legal battles, which are always a highlight of a Robert K. Tanenbaum story. This tale is a mixture of a Karp family saga, hate crimes, deranged arsonist and bomber, religious beliefs combined with Nazi sympathizers and events during the Holocaust and World War II, and the conflict between the public school system, the teachers union as led by corrupt officers and charter schools. How’s that for a mouthful?
What leads up to the courtroom scene are a series of events and even a murder or two. The Teacher’s Federation president is attempting to head off a bill in Albany which would result in an audit that would expose him and his cohorts for stealing funds from the union’s coffers. The author certainly knows better than this premise. Certainly unions are subject to regular audits. But for the plot to work, this fact has to be ignored.
So the battle between proponents of the charter school legislation, who want a mandatory audit of the Teacher’s Federation, and the corrupt union and public officials, ultimately sets the stage for the dramatic trial. As side issues, we have a scraggly group of Nazi sympathizers who conveniently serves as a red herring in the lead-up to murder charges, and Karp’s twin sons’ wishy-washy approach to their religious beliefs and late (by several years) Bar Mitzvah.
All in all, however, this was an enjoyable read, and is recommended.
Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.