Life in a Soviet satellite nation just sucked, no matter how you lived it. It was especially tricky if you were an honest cop, just trying to do your job and maybe get ahead. Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters (Soho Press, 2008) is reminiscent of Olen Steinhauer's unnamed-Easter-bloc series in how it so effectively displays this totalitarian bleakness. Our hero in in Siren, the tough Commander (anyone with the rank of Commander has to be tough) Jana Matinova, has had any shred of hope or empathy crushed out of her by the last nasty throes of the Communist regime in then-Czechoslovakia. Genelin's description of what the system did to her relationships is disturbingly believable in its intimacy and inevitability. While I generally am not a fan of a lot of background story in my crime fiction, in this instance, this was one of the better plotlines in the book. Given the author's background - describes himself as a "writer, lawyer, and international consultant in government reform" - one has the sense that he knows from what he speaks.
Jana is called in to investigate a car crash that may be a murder, and may be connected to some really bad guys who traffick in humans around Europe. To do this, she has to go to Ukraine, and France, and work with a couple of nice Eastern cops and some other EU types who may or may not be bad guys. That plot line is not outrageously original, and even in France, with a really fine meal (in the Alsace, bien sur!) the whiff of autocracy accompanies Jana.
And she is the quintessential post-Communist tough cookie. Early on, questioning a dispirited street performer, Jana decides that the conversation isn't getting anywhere.
"Jana held up the passport she had taken from Seges, opening it to the photograph of the dead man, holding it up in front the clown's face.
'Who is this man?'
He looked at the photograph, trying to decide what to disclose. 'Are you putting me in danger if I tell you?'
'Clown, your daughter is dead. Who is the man?'" (12)
It is good to have more girls in the lead roles in crime fiction, but I wonder if it is hard to write them well. Jana's hard shell is the predictable result of her brutal State-engineered personal experiences, and we learn this as her backstory is woven throughout most of the novel. Jana is deeply ambitious, pretty much humorless, and adept at distancing everyone, intentionally or not. You think it is hard balancing motherhood and a career here! Yet I'm not particularly drawn to her.
The backstory thread plays a tangential role to the main plot, by introducing characters who are the bridge between the two stories. I dislike the back-and-forth style of incorporating the backstory, it is distracting. And there was a certain jumpiness to this plot - now we're with Jana (in the present or the past), now with the bad guy(s), that made for a more thriller-like read than I generally like. That said, the opening scene, Jana arriving to investigate a terrible car crash on a bitterly cold, snowy night, is terrific - a cold and clinical crime scene grabber.
Ultimately, Jana's story a bit like a prelude, as if we must know all of this to really understand Jana, and now that we are acquainted, we can get back to letting her solve crimes. But having read the pilot, will we be back for the next installment? Yes, I think so. Soho Crime almost always delivers.