Innocent Murder

Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius Kovály, translated by Alex Zucker. Soho Crime, 2015. 9781616954963.

Helena, the only first person narrator, has managed to land a job as an usher at a movie theater in Communist era Prague after her husband was arrested for espionage. The other characters’ interactions away from Helena are narrated in the third person, as if the author didn’t want to get too close to these often disagreeable people. One married woman is tired of her philandering spouse, and offers to offload him onto the party girl he’s sleeping with. Another usher’s genteel poverty is an act. A police informant is goaded into becoming a provocateur, and very nearly a procurer of sexual favors. Possibly the creepiest of all the characters is the silver-haired State Security operative who’s fixated on cracking Helena’s husband, and who also wants to incriminate Helena. Meanwhile, an actual spy ring is using the theater to pass microfilm between couriers. All of these folks would probably not wish to draw any attention to themselves, but murders nearby prompt police investigations.

Most mysteries have one big reveal during their climax. Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street starts with a murder committed and solved in the first chapter. After that, revelations continue over the course of the book as Helena, her coworkers, cops, creeps, and spies interact. With two and a half murders, a suicide, and a malefactor too powerful to be brought to justice, this is closer to a tragedy than it is to mystery or thriller. It is also a tribute to how confusingly complex a good book can be when written by someone who’d lived through confusingly complex decades.

This book is also, in many ways, an artifact of the early Cold War. The author’s son Ivan Margolius’ introduction gives useful background, including apologetic paragraphs explaining what motivated his father to join Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party after World War II, his family’s disgrace, and his father’s execution in the wake of the 1952 Slansky Trials.  (Kovály emigrated to the United States in 1968, in the wake of the Prague Spring.)

Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest book review!

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