In The Spotlight: Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street

Hello, All,

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


Filed under Heda Margolius Kovály, Murder on Steep Street

20 responses to “In The Spotlight: Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street

  1. Interesting setting… Prague in the ‘50s

  2. Given my recent immersion in the Soviet regime and its wider effects, this sounds intriguing, if a bit darker than I normally go for. Thanks for another interesting spotlight, Margot – I shall add this one to the list! 🙂

    • If you do get to this one, FictionFan, I’ll be really interested in what you think of it. Among other things, it’s a look at a Soviet-era society, and at the way a crime story is told by and about members of that culture. It certainly isn’t ‘happy and bright.’ But at the same time, it’s not gruesome, if that makes sense.

  3. Col

    Sounds good, not one I had previously heard of.

  4. I am another person who had never heard of this but it sounds really intriguing both in terms of setting and scenario!

  5. I haven’t read this but it sounds really interesting.

  6. Using shifting POVs seems like a tricky but useful and liberating strategy for a mystery writer. I remember how Wilkie Collins used the gambit rather well. Have you used the same approach? I hope my Library has a copy of the book you’ve so nicely highlighted. Thanks, Margot, for featuring another author new to me.

    • If you do find a copy at your library, I hope you’ll enjoy it, Tim. It is, in a way, quite liberating to use different and shifting POVs. You’re right, too, that Collins did that, and successfully. I do it, myself, although so far, I’ve only used first person in my flash fiction. In my opinion, the author needs to balance the freedom that shifting POVs offers against the need for a cohesive story that readers can follow.

  7. An interesting take on the psychological angle Margot and one that I have to say sounds quite dark but I suppose that’s what you get in a time and place where few people have ‘honest’ relationships with each other. Thanks for sharing it sounds as though this has lots to think about although I have to confess I do hate books that use different names for the same people – it’s unnecessarily confusing.

    • I’ll be honest, Cleo. That part of the book can be confusing. It’s best to stay alert and pay attention to the characters’ names, surnames and titles. But that’s not always easy to do. You have an interesting point, too, that the tone of this book reflects the place and time. There is a lot to think about, as you say, and, for me, part of that comes as the reader is invited to think about the impact of the context on the characters.

  8. Spade & Dagger

    This sounds really interesting, especially as it was written in the 1980’s when this type of society was still really fresh in peoples minds. (It puts me in mind of the Sam Eastland series featuring Inspector Pekkala set in Stalin’s Russia with everyone looking at each other.) I fear the TBR pile is too tall & unstable for another purchase & sadly it’s not in our library, but I’ll keep this one in mind.

    • I know just exactly what you mean about the TBR pile, Spade & Dagger. I will never get through mine, that’s for sure. If you ever do get a chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And thanks for mentioning Eastland’s work. It does sound a bit similar in terms of that paranoia about who may be watching. That does add a real uneasiness to the story.

  9. I have the same problem, Margot. Too many books already. But this sounds very good and I am sure I would like it. So I hope to read it someday.

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