- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

DARK DREAMS: A COMMANDER

JANA MATINOVA INVESTIGATION

By Michael Genelin

Soho, $24, 352 pages

Reviewed by John Weisman

There is an unsettling, stark, almost Stalinist patina to “Dark Dreams,” Michael Genelin’s second Jana Matinova police procedural, that gives the book a pentimento quality. On the surface we see the emerging, pro-West Eurocentric Slovak Republic. But beneath, one can still make out tinges of the country’s Moscow-controlled past. In many ways, Bratislava’s dreary weltanschauung in this novel is literary heir to the dreary, nicotine-rich Stockholm weltanschauung of Per Wahloo and Maj. Sjowall’s classic and minimalist Martin Beck police series of the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s as if Mr. Genelin sees everything in hazy black and white, as opposed to the splashy focused Technicolor of so many other current police procedurals.

This starkness plays out on many levels. Mr. Genelin’s narrative is often understated. And yet one learns a lot in just a few short strokes. Here is Commander Matinova as she enters police headquarters during a nasty snow storm: “The windowsills were layered with snow that looked yellow in the light from inside the building. Unfortunately, the yellow snow did not change the structure’s appearance for the better: its concrete walls continued to look brutally ugly and cruelly unappetizing. It would always say, ‘police.’ ”

Or Matinova’s aide, Seges, whom she catches going through her desk: “He was like a fungus that you tried to scrape away or kill with a spray; no matter, it kept coming back. That was a good way to think of him, she thought, a fungus, and this fungus was standing in front of her.”

Mr. Genelin gives his protagonist a keen eye. When Matinova attended a European police conference in Vienna, “Jana had been struck by how their national characteristics were reflected in the way the individuals interacted. The Swiss seldom talked; the Hungarians always seemed to be talking; the French punctuated most of their communicating with facial expressions and extravagant gestures. The Germans were always suspicious of police representatives from the other countries; they might be themselves in criminal activity. The others knew how the Germans felt, but, for sake of appearances, tolerated them.” Nice.

And he knows how to characterize Vienna, too, in a few brief but telling brushstrokes: His Slovak police delegation eats at “Grossiks, an old beer hall and eatery whose menu boasted that Hitler used to enjoy its wonderful breakfasts.” ‘Nuf said.

The investigation around which this book is built concerns multifaceted challenges. There is a series of seemingly unrelated murders — India, Nepal, Switzerland, Slovakia, Vienna, Hungary — that may or may not be connected. There is an ambitious Slovak police captain named Bohumil running an internal corruption investigation that he hopes will further his career. There is a rich former official (he was minister of the interior during the communist regime) named Kamin who raped teenaged Jana’s best friend Sofia. Kamin now has become a post-communist influence peddler — and his victim, Sofia, is a legislator who must deal with him.

The cast also includes a prosecutor named Peter Saris, with whom Matinova becomes sexually involved. And the brothers Guzak — dangerous at-large criminals who don’t think twice about committing murder. There is a dwarf-sized Slovak named Sila Covic, known as the Red Devil, who handles public relations and logistics for the Slovak Parliament. There is Matinova’s boss and guardian, a colonel named Trokan, who is largely omnipotent about all matters concerning the police. And there is the Ukrainian cop Alexi, “a heavy-set man with a large paunch and the rosy complexion of a drinker,” who becomes instrumental in cracking the case open.

Into this mix, Mr. Genelin has added several B-roll themes: trafficking in women (a huge concern in Eastern Europe today); drug smuggling, professional assassins and cops on the take. It’s a sometimes confusing but always challenging melange.

That is another positive: Mr. Genelin, whose biography notes that he worked as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, and “helped develop a freedom of information act” for the Slovak Republic, is one of those intelligent writers who neither leads readers around by the nose nor spoon-feeds them globs of literary cop-talk transfat. He writes as if he’s channeling a good police gumshoe. His novel — just like Commander Matinova’s investigation — demands an eye for detail, a good memory and the ability to see the big picture.

And Matinova is a good police investigator. She is a no-nonsense dot-connector who puts her cases together building block by building block. She is a talented elicitor and interrogator. She understands that nonverbal communication is sometimes more significant than what’s being said. She’s not afraid to stick her boot in the door and throw her shoulder against it when necessary. She is always armed and is fully capable of using her Makarov. As she puts it to a big, ugly armed hood named Spis, “I have a gun too. … It comes with a license that allows me to kill people, particularly when they have a weapon.”

And unlike many of today’s fictional female law-enforcement characters, Jana Matinova doesn’t spend a lot of time on existential self-affirmation or guilt-ridden introspection. She’s got personal problems — but she deals with them as best she can without whining or coming apart at the seams. She’s got professional problems, but she attacks them in an orderly, disciplined way.

How long Mr. Genelin can keep his characters fresh and his plots complex is something no one can predict. But for now he’s got full sails and following seas, and one expects a lot more — both from him, and from Commander Matinova.

John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all available as Avon paperbacks.

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