Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Requiem for a Gypsy, by Michael Genelin

The fourth book in the Commander Jana Matinova series, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, is arriving this summer from Soho Crime. The book is chock full of plot elements that resolve themselves not in clockwork fashion but in an almost lurching motion as Matinova uncovers crimes and ethical quandaries involving Nazis, Communists, Gypsies, Turks, International bankers, assassins, and a teenage criminal courier named Em. The action moves from Bratislava to Berlin, Vienna, and Paris.

For all that complication, the book is more direct and also more satisfying than its predecessor, The Magician's Accomplice. Genelin's style is more thriller than police procedural, and that remains true in the new novel, except that the police investigation is the key to all the plot elements. In a prologue, an enigmatic old man is run over in a Paris street. In Bratislava, Matinova and her boss, Colonel Trokan, are asked to guard Oto Bogan, a rich banker who has received a death threat but whose wife is determined to go ahead with a planned gala event. Shots are fired and Trokan manages to save Bogan's life, but the wife is killed.

Matinova is sidelined from the investigation but inserts herself anyway, first without authorization and then with a grudging invitation from a prosecutor who nevertheless refuses to give her key information in the case. As things develop (discoveries including a peculiar menage-a-trois with Bogan, the wife, and her former husband, a banking scheme that is either criminal or outlandish, and the shadowy influence of an international assassin who's supposed to be dead.

Other plotlines include the death of a Gypsy boy whose parents think he was murdered, the appearance of a waif at Matinova's door in the middle of a snowstorm, and an almost heartwarming development for Matinova's lazy and annoying assistant, Seges. While not all the plot elements end up being tied up in a knot, everything is related to the tangled history of Slovakia over the past century. One particularly interesting thread (and the most interesting of Genelin's flashbacks to Matinova's past so far in the series) involves a young man she sees being beaten by the police during a demonstration against the then-Communist government—an incident that divides her from her Party-member mother in unpredictable ways.

I wish in fact that the plot dealt more with those Soviet-infused years rather than the more distant Nazi past. I for one am a little tired of Nazis popping up out of the woodwork in crime fiction. Alas, I suppose as villains (criminal and historical) the Nazis are irresistible. Bratislava is the home ground of the series, but in this novel the cities of Berlin and Paris (and to a lesser extent Vienna) are more vividly evoked. Em, the waif whom Matinova adopts (or perhaps it's the other way around) focuses the tours of these cities both as a young tourist and the center of a criminal vortex. She's partly the daughter and granddaughter Matinova has lost, and partly a master manipulator (Zazie on a crime spree, if you will—if anybody remembers Queneau's most memorable character).

As always, it's dangerous for anyone, especially other policemen, to be around Matinova (as cops from Germany and Paris discover here) and Matinova herself is frequently threatened in Requiem for a Gypsy. Her actions here seem more human and less superhuman than in some of the incidents in earlier books. In fact, though her own story has been more central to earlier books, she seems more human, more a sympathetic character in this latest book.


Maxine Clarke said...

Great review. I'm still ambivalent about whether to read more of this series after the first. I like the character of Martinova a lot, but the thriller elements in the first really did not inspire me, they were more like an Evelyn Anthony novel. I might return to the series (maybe this one rather than 2 or 3?) but must work my way down the pile a bit first.

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