Innocence, by Heda Margolius Kovaly, is a pretty good work of noir crime fiction. But Kovaly's own story is what really keeps the book in your hands. This "new" work from the Soho Crime Club (first published in Czech in 1985, translated and published in English by Soho Crime, 2015) is both a personal story and an homage to genre.
The author's son Ivan wrote the introduction to this edition of Innocence and you might find it the most interesting part of the book. Certainly it is as at least as dramatic and thought-provoking as the fictional events. Kovaly, author of the well-known holocaust memoir Under A Cruel Star (Plunkett Lake Press, 1986) was a Jewish woman living in Prague when the Second World War rolled over Europe. She survived deportation to the Lodz ghetto in Poland and subsequent transfer to Auschwitz, and managed to find her husband and her way back to Prague at the end of the war, participating in the Prague uprising (you can get all these historical details and more through the ol' google, or just by reading the introduction, which is my source. ) and the subsequent installation of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Then things went downhill. Her husband was falsely accused of some crime against the state, and executed along with ten others in an infamous show trial in the mid-1950s. Heda eventually remarried, and took up work as a literary translator. She made her way to the US in 1968, to Our Fair City, in fact, where she worked at the Law School library and continued her translation career. Why is this important? Because among the many literary luminaries whose works she translated was Raymond Chandler, whom everyone knows was one of the leading lights of mid-20th c. American crime fiction. Kovaly was inspired by Chandler to try her hand at crime fiction, and Innocence is the result.
We call this fiction, and it is, but it won't take you long to see through the thin veneer of Helena's story and understand that is strongly based on Heda's own. While there is a murder at the beginning, and another at the end, in many ways these events are only tangential to the complex web of spying and secrets and above all lies that tie these brief-but-sharply-drawn characters together. There are so many of them (and their names are surely difficult to pronounce what with lots of Czech characters), and essential characteristics are revealed only at the end of a chapter - in a sort-of a HA so HE is sleeping with HER style - that it is a challenge to keep them straight. Most have just a few distinguishing characteristics, and everyone, with the exception of Helena, is spying on someone else. Why they are spying, you never learn, only to whom they've been reporting their non-findings. This is critical to understanding this book, which I can only assume is an accurate representation of life in a Stalinist state. Toward the end, everyone attends a funeral of another character, and as they stand around the coffin, "Each of them was so different from the others that if anyone had been able to see into their thoughts, they would never have guessed that they represented the same person. As is true for all of us, Mrs. Kourimska's innermost self was cut into a thousand facets and everyone who knew her found at least one of them that reflected what they were looking for, based on their own personalities." (202)
It is only into the mind of Helena that you go farther. Surely only someone who has been through the agony of a loved ones' false imprisonment could write so searingly about loneliness. "Maybe it didn't matter so much what people said to each other. The reason we talk isn't to share nuggets of wisdom, but to pause a moment in our flight through life, to make a connection, reassure ourselves we've got something in common - a human word, a human voice. Also, when you talk to another person, you think differently than when you talk to yourself. Maybe words, any t all, directed to someone else, are an act of love in a way. When I talk to you, I enter your life and you enter mine. We share our worlds with each other." (46) It is kind of obvious logic, nothing you haven't thought of before, but in the context of Helena's situation it resonates with an almost unbearable poignancy.
Now, the Chandler/noir piece is present, and perhaps a touch distracting at first. There are hard-boiled characters, and sex, and dark streets, and tough talk like this exchange:
" 'Well, that was a smooth move getting her into the Horizon [that is the movie theater where most of the story takes place]. She pounced on it like a wildcat. Sure, it looks suspicious, but it might not mean anything. When a gal's man is in the clink, she's happy to take the first job that comes along. Bur any way you slice it, I've got nothing to report.'
'Well, see to it that you do. And pronto. Remember, sweetie, you've got a lot to lose. I've been satisfied in the past, but things're dragging a bit this time. And when I say you've got a lot to lose, I don't just mean this flat.' " (52)
I don't love it, and it feels a bit forced at times (could that be the translation? I find that is often the case with any work in translation), but after a while the novelty of the language recedes and the central themes of deceit/honesty and guilt/innocence come to the fore.
While I've not read any Chandler (I know! And I call myself a crime fiction enthusiast, shame.) I can't imagine that he'd be able to pull off a scene like the one toward the end of the book, where you are not quite sure if Helena is going to end it all.
"She fell asleep in her clothes on the couch, with one hand under her head. All night long, drops slid from the pools in her eyes on to the coarse cloth of the upholstery, but gradually the deep lines around her mouth faded.
The snow outside the window thickened, lofting up with the wind, the flakes dancing and swirling in all their sparkling glory, until finally they fell to the ground and transformed into mud.
But every now and then one of them got caught on a tree branch or in a crack between the centuries-old tiles of the Mala Strana rooftops, so even though the snowfall lasted just a while, some glittering touches of white remained tucked away till morning, when the people began to emerge form their homes into the new day, into the same old aimless wandering." (208-9)
You might say that Kovaly never did write crime fiction, just true crime - crimes against humanity.