Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margoulis Kovály

23164997The starting position of the police in 1950s Prague is that everyone is guilty of something. If they can’t find evidence of a crime, it just means they’re not looking hard enough. It’s a wonder that there are enough detectives to investigate actual murders, since so many seem busy trying to catch people committing “political crimes.” In Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margoulis Kovály, the novels protagonist, Helena Nováková, is the unfortunate target of Captain Nedoma—before Nedoma turns up stabbed to death on the street where Helena works.

Strangely enough, Innocence begins with another murder entirely. A young boy has gone missing. The police follow his trail back to the Horizon Movie Theater where Helena and a more or less motley bunch of Prague citizen. The boy turns up murdered by the theater’s projectionist. No one saw it coming. At one point, Helena muses:

Twenty-nine years ago, by some terrible accident, two cells that should never have met joined to create something that should never have existed…Maybe it was something you could see. Maybe a little black dot…and if I were a brain surgeon I could point to it with the tip of my scalpel and say to my assistant, “There, you see? That tiny spot on the cortex? That’s the death of Josef Vrba, age eight, of Prague.” (Chapter 1*)

This seems to be the perspective of Captain Nedoma. It’s only a matter of time before everybody slips up. In contrast, Helena herself is repeatedly described as an innocent person. While other characters are revealed to have negotiable respect for privacy or are cheating on their spouses, Helena virtuously waits for her husband to be released from prison. (He was sent to prison because of sheer bad luck. He drew a map to help some guests find the Novák’s vacation house. Two of the buildings turned out to be military installations.)

After this murder and before Nedoma’s, Kovály bounces between Helena and the perspectives of two other women who work at the Horizon. The detective investigating Nedoma’s death, Lieutenant Vendyš, is also pressed into service as a narrator. In a few scant chapters, these characters create a chilling portrait of life in Communist Prague. In this Prague, as the introduction by the author’s daughter, puts it:

People had to adopt a double life, a public one in which they supported the communist regime, and a private one, rigorously guarded, where they expressed their true opinions and misgivings only to close relatives and friends. (Introduction**)

Worse, for Helena, the double life and having an innocent husband in prison and the constant surveillance and police interference with her life, are giving her symptoms that sound a lot like schizophrenia. The only hope a person in such a state (or State) can have is that there is a reason for the accusations and punishments. But looking for the reason behind it all is:

a dangerous drug. You begin to see nothing but ambiguous symbols wherever you looked, interpreting everything from the perspective of some higher plan, forgetting that if there was any order to the world, it was created by an intelligence too sophisticated for human beings to comprehend. (Chapter 4)

Unfortunately, Helena never discovers the reason. Instead, she is battered back and forth by Nedoma and his allies’ machinations. Until he is murdered. Helena is the chief suspect, but only for a moment. It seems that more than one person had good reason to see the Captain dead.

The introduction reveals that Kovály was a big fan of Raymond Chandler and the dialog of this book has more than a whiff of Philip Marlowe. The noirish vocabulary of mid-Century Prague citizens is jarring; I never got used to it. The dialog was so incongruous to the setting that I think it ruined the book for me. Apart from the dialog, Innocence is a moody meditation on the dangerous surrealism of communist life. The parts where Kovály stops copying Chandler are the best.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 June 2015.


* Quotes are from the 2015 edition published by Soho Press, translated by Alex Zucker. Page numbers are not provided because this was an advanced reader copy.

** This is supported by several anecdotes from Anna Funder’s Stasiland.

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