Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. In some crime novels, the tension and suspense come as much from the larger sociopolitical situation in a country as they do from the actual crime itself. And when it’s handled effectively, that atmosphere can add much to a story. That’s the case with Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
Although it was first published in 1985, the novel takes place in 1950s Prague. The Soviet Union is dominant in Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia is firmly in the control of the ruling Communist Party. In that atmosphere, no-one trusts anyone, because anyone might be reporting to the Party.
Helena Nováková is an usher at the Horizon Cinema. As we soon learn, she’s not much of a ‘mixer’ or ‘joiner,’ and doesn’t have much of a life outside of her work. One day, she’s asked to speak to the projectionist, Jiři Janeček, about being more attentive to his duties. She’s just finished that awkward conversation when she learns that something far worse has happened. Josef Vrba, the eight-year-old nephew of Marie Vránová, one of Helena’s co-workers, has gone missing. Captain Václav Nedoma investigates, and soon makes the awful discovery that the boy has been killed. His body was found in the projection room, and Janeček is swiftly arrested.
There’s no doubt as to the projectionist’s guilt. But that’s only the beginning for those who work at the Horizon. One evening, Captain Nedoma is found stabbed in his car on one of the streets near the cinema. Lieutenant Vendyš investigates, and soon finds himself in a very tangled web.
All of the Horizon employees are hiding different secrets. For example, Marie Vránová was having an affair with the victim. She might have her own reasons to kill. So might the victim’s wife. Helena Nováková is already living under a cloud. Her husband, Karel, was imprisoned for subversion, and that makes her possibly guilty by association. The other staff members, too, have their secrets and their reasons for keeping them.
As he investigates, Vendyš learns that the State is taking an interest in his findings. It turns out that the Horizon has been the focus of a higher-level investigation. The authorities believe that someone there is a subversive, and they’ve placed someone else there as a mole, to watch and report back. But who is the suspected subversive, and who is the mole? Vendyš has to negotiate all of this, and find Nedoma’s killer, without risking his own career (or more).
The novel takes place against the background of a very uneasy sociopolitical climate. People have learned not to tell the real truth, which can get you in serious trouble. It doesn’t mean there are no friendships, even love affairs. But most people know they need to protect themselves first. Helena, for instance, understands why there are people who would rather not be seen with her. With her husband in prison on subversion charges, she’s social poison, so to speak. Other characters protect themselves in other ways. And no character completely trusts any of the others. In fact, it’s considered smarter to take a ‘none of my business’ attitude towards others’ lives. It’s safer that way.
That atmosphere contributes to the noir feel of the novel. None of the characters is completely honest, even if some of them are more sympathetic than others. And there’s plenty of cynicism. As the story goes along, there are several plot twists as the proverbial outer layers are peeled away, and we discover the truth about some of the characters. As you might expect in this sort of novel, the ending isn’t what you’d call a happy one. We do learn the truth, but that doesn’t mean justice is done.
The story is told from several points of view. One for instance, is Helena’s (usually, but not always, 1st person, past tense). Other characters’ points of view are given as well (3rd person, past tense). And the perspectives shift back and forth. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. It’s also worth noting that some characters are referred to in more than one way. For instance, Marie is also called Comrade Vránová. Nedoma is sometimes called Comrade Captain, sometimes Václav. And Helena is sometimes referred to as Comrade Nováková, or just Nováková. Readers will want to pay close attention as the action goes on so as to more easily follow what the different characters are doing.
This novel is much more psychological than it is anything else. There’s very little physical violence in it, and most of that is ‘offstage.’ The suspense here comes from the almost paranoid social atmosphere.
It’s also worth noting that there’s an interesting introduction, at least in my edition, written by the author’s son. In it, he shares some of her background, and gives the reader some context for the novel.
Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street, is the story of life in Prague in the 1950s. That life is reflected in the microcosm of the cinema, and the novel shows what happens to that carefully constructed existence when there’s murder. But what’s your view? Have you read Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 12 March/Tuesday, 13 March – Solomon vs. Lord – Paul Levine
Monday, 19 March/Tuesday, 20 March – Birth Marks – Sarah Dunant
Monday, 26 March/Tuesday, 27 March – Koreatown Blues – Mark Rogers