Koutsakis’ Athenian Blues (Greece), Stanley’s A Death in the Family (Botswana), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (USA)

This week’s crime reading took in Greece, Botswana and America.

Pol Koutsakis, Athenian Blues, translated from Greek by Pol Koutsakis (Bitter Lemon Press, 2017)

Opening line: A few of them were kicking and screaming, but most of the immigrants followed orders, as the police shoved them out of the building.

Athenian Blues is Koutsakis’s debut crime novel and the first in his ‘Stratos Gazis’ series. Its main protagonist is a contract killer with a conscience, who is aided in his investigations by childhood friends Drag, a homicide cop, and Teri, a transgender sex worker. When Stratos is asked to carry out a hit by a beautiful Greek actress who promptly disappears, he and his friends are pulled into an increasingly baffling case.

This novel left me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the first-person, private-eye narrative, which makes effective use of hard-boiled PI conventions, and the quirky depictions of Stratos and his friends. The novel also makes the most of its contemporary Athens setting, providing interesting insights into recent Greek political and economic crises. However, I found being asked to identify positively with a hitman a bit of a stretch. Stratos is given a moral legitimacy reminiscent of popular TV killer Dexter (he only bumps off those who truly deserve it), and his friends seem to have no problem accepting his profession, due to their past experiences and the social upheavals of the present. And everyone seems to end up in bed with everyone else *yawn* (I am clearly getting old). An entertaining summer read, as long as you don’t take it too seriously…

Michael Stanley, A Death in the Family (Orenda Books, 2016).

Opening line: Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream.

A Death in the Family is the fifth in the ‘Detective Kubu’ series, co-written by Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Originally from South Africa, they decided to start writing after a trip to neighbouring Botswana, where Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series is of course also set. While the ‘Kubu’ series portrays Botswana in a warm light, it also paints a more nuanced (and decidedly less twee) picture of modern Botswana life than McCall Smith. In this novel, Kubu has to deal with his most distressing case yet – the murder of his own father Wilmon – and two other cases that highlight the potentially mixed effects of foreign mining investments. The plot is highly satisfying, the characters engagingly drawn, and readers come away with a rich understanding of Botswana’s history and culture – from traditional funeral rites to the role of the tribal kgotla. There’s a handy glossary of Setswana phrases included at the back of the novel as well.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (originally published 1953; Audible book narrated by Tim Robbins)

Opening line: It was a pleasure to burn.

I’m always looking out for audiobooks to accompany my knitting, and jumped at the chance to listen to Fahrenheit 451, an American classic I’d never read. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel: it depicts an American future in which books are viewed as subversive, and reading or owning them has become a criminal offence (everyone is plugged into mind-numbing, round-the-clock entertainment provided by state radio and TV instead). The task of firemen in this society is not to put out fires, but to burn books – which catch alight at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The novel traces the evolution of Guy Montag, a fireman who is an unquestioning part of the system, following a chance encounter with Clarice McClellan, an intelligent, free-spirited teenager. Written in 1953, the novel is remarkably prescient, exploring the negative effects of advanced technology on social interaction, and asserts the fundamental right to question, challenge and advance ideas in literature and debate. There’s a highly charged murder in the novel as well, which has emboldened me to include it on the blog.

I can fully see why Fahrenheit 451 is regarded as a classic. The story is simply and sparely told, but communicates incredibly powerful ideas. If I’m not mistaken, Bradbury draws on one particular biblical story at the end (I won’t say which, as it would give too much away), and provides a chillingly realistic depiction of what it might be like to resist a repressive regime. There was only one moment where I felt the novel truly showed its age (again, slight spoiler; ask me to say more in the comments if you’re curious).

So how’s my TBR cull going? The scores on the doors are as follows:

Subtracted – 5

Added – 3

Progress of sorts…?

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#47 Anita Nair’s A Cut-like Wound (India)

Anita Nair, A Cut-like Wound (London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 [2012]). Set in Bangalore, this crime novel introduces readers to Inspector Borei Gowda and provides a rare insight into the world of the hijra. 3.5 stars

Nair Wound

Opening lines: It wasn’t the first time. But it always felt like the first time as he stood in front of the mirror, uncertain, undecided, on the brink of something monumental. On the bare marble counter was a make-up kit.

There’s been so much wonderful TV crime drama to report on that I’m a bit behind on my book reviews. So it’s time to explore a crime novel by Anita Nair, an extremely versatile Indian writer known for her novels, essays, children’s fiction, poetry and travelogues. A Cut-like Wound, published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2014, two years after its original publication, is her first foray into crime.

A Cut-like Wound is set in present-day Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru) in India’s southern Karnataka state, and skilfully evokes the heat and dust of this crowded city. Inspector Borei Gowda, the novel’s main investigator, is an engaging creation: in the throes of a mid-life crisis, with a stalling career and a lacklustre marriage, we see him pondering his future in the face of temptation from old flame Urmila, who’s just resurfaced in his life. His struggles with workplace power dynamics as he tries to solve a series of brutal murders are also well drawn.

Like all good international crime fiction, A Cut-Like Wound provides readers with the opportunity to learn about a different culture and society. The novel provides a rounded picture of Bangalore and depicts the lives of citizens from a range of social and economic backgrounds. There’s also an intriguing insight into the city’s minority community of hijra (transgender individuals and eunuchs), who occupy an ambiguous space in Indian society: often depicted in comic supporting roles in Indian cinema, they’re also frequently the victims of real life prejudice and violence. In 2014, in a major group victory, the Indian supreme court awarded hijra the right to select a ‘third gender’ category on official documents, giving them legal visibility at last.  

FHI BANGLADESH

A group of Hijra in Bangladesh. Credit: USAID Bangladesh

Less convincing for me was the depiction of the murderer within the novel. The motivation for the killings didn’t ring completely true, even though I could see the psychological rationale the author was trying to employ. This weakness and a slight unevenness in narrative tone leads me to give A Cut-like Wound a rating of 3.5 stars. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about Indian crime fiction, take a look at the following:

And on its way in 2016: the winner of the 2014 Harvill Secker Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. This novel is set in 1919 Calcutta and shows British policeman Captain Sam Wyndham investigating the politically sensitive murder of a senior government official against the backdrop of the ‘quit India’ movement. I’ve had an advance copy, and am enjoying this hugely assured debut very much. The Wyndham series and its author are definitely ones to watch.  

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#32 / Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place

Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (London: Vintage, 2012 [2008]). A rather gruesome outing for Commissaire Adamsberg and his team  3.5 stars

Opening line: Commissaire Adamsberg knew how to iron shirts.

Fred Vargas is one of my favourite crime writers, but I always regard her novels as something of a guilty pleasure. By rights, I shouldn’t really like them, as I tend to favour crime novels that engage with history, politics or society (such as Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State), and which feature grounded, rational policemen (I’m a sensible type at heart). Not novels involving a hunt for a werewolf (Seeking Whom He May Devour), or a Commissaire who wanders aimlessly around Paris using intuition to solve his crimes.

And yet the Adamsberg novels have afforded me more reading pleasure than almost any other crime series I’ve read. This has a great deal to do with the quality of the writing – there’s a reason why Vargas has won the CWA International Dagger three times – and the way in which she uses her medieval historian’s knowledge to take the roman policier in a pleasingly original direction. Add in a large dash of quirky gallic – her police team are eccentrically and extravagently ‘French’ – et voilà, you have a classy, distinctive crime series on your hands that’s mighty hard to resist.

Those who’ve loved previous Adamsberg novels are not likely to be disappointed by An Uncertain Place, as all the usual ingredients are present and correct. For British readers and Anglophiles, there’s also the bonus of an initial stop in London, which includes a splendidly gothic discovery at the entrance of Highgate Cemetery.

So why have I given An Uncertain Place only 3.5 stars?

For me, this crime novel went slightly too far in two respects:

1. It features a truly gruesome murder and crime-scene description. An explanation of the murderer’s rationale and methods are supplied further on in the narrative, but I still found the enormous amount of detail too much to stomach (not helped by the fact that I read the worst bit over lunch).

2. Vargas is usually very skilled at suggesting that other-worldly forces are at work while maintaining a plausible crime narrative in a ‘realistic’ French setting. As in previous novels, the tension between those in the police team who work intuitively and those who rely on logic is thematised (Adamsberg and his disciples are the ‘cloud shovellers’, while Retancourt leads the ‘rational positivist movement’). But Vargas jumps in a clear direction at the end of the narrative, and it was one that left me rather cross. So – with a little sigh – 3.5 it is.

An Uncertain Place was my January read for the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Mrs. Peabody awards An Uncertain Place an enjoyable but slightly infuriating 3.5 stars.

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#25 / Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case

Following a lovely summer break, Mrs. P. kicks off with a review of Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (London: Penguin/Michael Joseph, 2012 [2011]). An effectively-written courtroom drama that asks some big legal and ethical questions 3.5 stars

Opening line: Later, they would all of them remember it: the floor waiter, the two elderly ladies in the lift, the married couple in the fourth-floor corridor.

Ferdinand von Schirach is a well-regarded defence lawyer based in Berlin. He first came to prominence as a writer in 2009 with the short-story collection Verbrechen [Crime], which drew heavily on the real-life cases he’d encountered during his career. It was an instant hit, spending 54 weeks at the top of the German bestseller lists, as well as critically acclaimed (the winner of the 2010 Kleist prize). A second short-story collection entitled Guilt was also extremely successful, before the publication of The Collini Case, his first full-length crime novel, in 2011.

The focus on criminality, justice and the law is as evident in The Collini Case as it was in the author’s earlier works. It’s 2001 Berlin, and young barrister Caspar Leinen is assigned the defence of an Italian national, Fabrizio Collini, the perpetrator in an apparently open-and-shut murder case at the famous Adlon Hotel. Only after accepting the brief does Leinen realise that he knew the victim, retired industrialist Hans Meyer: the latter was the grandfather of a close school-friend, who had been kind to Leinen in his youth. While considering whether or not he should continue to represent Collini, Leinen is faced with another problem: the accused refuses to reveal his motive for the crime. How then is Leinen to defend his client when the case comes to court? Leinen’s personal difficulties in representing Meyer’s murderer and his efforts to figure out a viable defence become the key concerns of the unfolding narrative.

Von Schirach is a skilled author who knows exactly which buttons to push and when to push them. However, for this reader, the plot felt a little mechanical at times, and ticked one too many predictable commercial boxes. For example, while written in an elegant, literary style, the narrative features unnecessarily detailed depictions of violence, along with oddly gratuitous sex scenes. We’re also treated to a protracted postmortem (regular visitors to this blog will know how I feel about those). 

By far the most interesting aspect of this novel for me was the legal discussion portrayed in the courtroom part of the novel. And here I find myself in a rather difficult position, as talking about this aspect of the narrative would inevitably mean breaching Mrs. P.’s spoiler rule. So I will have to content myself by saying that the discussion of genuine points of law and their impact on a genuine set of cases since the end of the 1960s was fascinating, and is not something that I’ve seen addressed this way in a German crime novel before. 

The wider impact of the novel has also been quite extraordinary. The legal points it highlights have been raised by German MPs in the Bundestag, with a Ministry of Justice commission established in 2012 to examine the larger issues raised about legislative processes in the 1960s. It’s extremely rare for a crime novel to have such an influence in the ‘real world’, and this sets it apart from others that have tackled the same subject in a very special way.

I would second Maxine’s advice over at Petrona to read the novel before seeking out further information about the author and his work. But once you’re through, you might be interested in the following:

A Spiegel piece by von Schirach in English, in which he talks a bit about his unusual family background (thanks to Maxine for this link).

An interview with the author in German in the newspaper Die Zeit, which includes discussion about the judicial issue at the heart of the trial (contains spoilers!).

This Guardian article also draws on the interview in Die Zeit (contains spoilers!).

The comments on this post may also inadvertantly hint at the novel’s content…

Mrs. Peabody awards The Collini Case a slightly uneven but judicially fascinating 3.5 stars.

UPDATES

September 2012: Ferdinand von Schirach was interviewed by Mark Lawson on Radio 4’s Front Row (Monday 17. September, 11 minutes).

May 2013: The Collini Case has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award.

June 2013: Over at the Reactions to Reading blog, Bernadette draws attention to the CWA’s judging discussions (see CWA quote below), and asks whether worthiness should outweigh the question of quality in relation to The Collini Case. There are lots of interesting points raised, both in the post and in the comments being posted in response.

CWA statement: ‘Questions of quality led to two long discussions by the judging panel: one is whether a socially important book which is otherwise not exceptional in originality or aesthetic quality is, nonetheless, an ‘outstanding’ book; the other is the problem of exceptional violence. In both cases, the judges agree that one of crime fiction’s claims to attention is when it reveals, analyses, and publicizes issues of social concern. Crime fiction can alert its publics to failures in laws and law enforcement, on the street, in the courts, and in legislation. It can perform the work of historical memory and bring injustices to public attention. Three of the shortlisted books raise these questions: one performs the work of publicity and has called the attention of its society to a questionable change in its laws; in two, though there is terrible violence, it is employed in the service of serious questions, and is never gratuitous’ [my emphasis].

And one last, extra note: There’s extensive discussion of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader in the comments below, which also has a courtroom section, as well as reference to Schlink’s crime novels (the ‘Selb’ series). In my capacity as an academic, I’ve written two articles on Schlink’s work, with links as follows… The first is a comparative analysis of the crime novel Selbs Justiz (which opens the ‘Selb’ series) and The Reader in the journal German Life and Letters (2006). The second looks at the controversies created in critical circles by The Reader, both in Germany and in the English-speaking world (German Monitor, 2013). It’s nearly twenty years since The Reader was published, and critical reaction to the novel and the film continues to be extremely polarised.

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#16 Vikas Swarup / Six Suspects

Vikas Swarup, Six Suspects (London: Black Swan 2008). The crime novel as vehicle for a darkly humorous and highly critical portrait of modern India. 3.5 stars

 Opening sentence:  Not all deaths are equal. There’s a caste system even in murder.

For the first time this blog travels to India, as part of a concerted effort to broaden its transnational criminal horizons.

Six Suspects is the second literary offering of Vikas Swarup, who hit the international jackpot when his highly-praised first novel, Q&A, was adapted for film as the phenomenally successful Slumdog Millionaire (8 Oskars and numerous other accolades). Not bad for a book that was written in a mere two months.

Six Suspects is a rather unusual crime novel. While drawing heavily on the conventions of classic detective fiction (there is a murder, a drawing room of sorts, and the eponymous set of suspects), Swarup uses the genre primarily for satirical purposes, providing the reader with a darkly humorous and often scathing critique of modern India. The suspects – a bureaucrat, a Bollywood actress, a thief, a politician, an American tourist and a tribesman from the Andaman Islands – are selected for the spectrum of perspectives they offer on contemporary Indian society, and allow Swarup to explore his key themes of political corruption, power and class in an uncompromising fashion (pretty daring given his day job as a member of the Indian civil service; currently Consul-General of India in Osaka-Kobe, Japan). Much of the novel is taken up with tracing the life stories of the suspects and the motives that they might have had for killing Vivek ‘Vicky’ Rai, a disreputable thirty-two-year-old businessman and playboy, who also happens to be the son of the powerful Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, relatively little emphasis is placed upon the process of investigation: the role of detective is played in part by Arun Advani, a journalist renowned for exposing corruption and injustice, but he only features significantly at the beginning and the end of this chunky 557-page text.

I found Six Suspects very enjoyable in a number of respects. As someone who has visited India in the past, the novel’s evocative descriptions of the sights and sounds of everyday life, and the huge disjunction between rich and poor rang very true. The novel also travels widely around India, beginning and ending in Delhi, but taking in other locations such as Srinagar, Jaisalmer, Varanasi, Kolkata and the Andaman Islands on the way (the latter are a remote and very beautiful group of islands in the Bay of Bengal that ‘belong’ politically to India, and which are home to ethnic tribes such as the Onges and Jarawa). The novel thus takes readers on a wide-ranging geographical and cultural journey which will be highly rewarding for those with an interest in India.

Courtesy of lonelyplanet.com

Another hugely enjoyable aspect of the novel is its biting satirical humour, and its witty nod to Salman Rushdie and magical realism (I particularly liked the possession of a grumpy, philandering ex-politician by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi).

On the minus side, I felt the novel was a bit overlong and that its depiction of some characters and incidents was too exaggerated to be effective in the larger context of Swarup’s satire. As a result, the narrative felt rather uneven at times, and while I remained admiring of the author’s ambitious use of the crime genre to create a satirical portrait of India, I wasn’t sure that he’d completely succeeded in his aim when I closed the book for the final time.

I discovered Six Suspects at our city library, which has a superlative collection of crime fiction. If you’d like to read an extract from the novel, you can do so here on the author’s website.

Mrs Peabody awards Six Suspects 3.5 stars for its biting humour and its ambitious, if slightly uneven use of the crime novel as satire.

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#15 Valerio Varesi / River of Shadows

Valerio Varesi, River of Shadows (Il fiume delle nebbie), translated from the Italian by Joseph Farrell (London: Maclehose Press 2011 [2003]). An atmospheric crime novel set against the backdrop of flooding in the Po Valley, and introducing Commissario Soneri  3.5 stars

 Opening sentence:  A steady downpour descended from the skies.

Given that Italy is currently in the headlines courtesy of Berlusconi’s imminent resignation, it seems fitting to review an Italian crime novel (I also happened upon an Inspector Zen novel in a charity shop today, so this week has become a bit of an Italian affair).

Valerio Varesi’s River of Shadows was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger, and in most respects, is an enjoyable, quality read. The novel is set in the Po Valley of northern Italy, and offers a fascinating insight into the boatmen’s communities that work the Po river (if your knowledge of geography is as scanty as mine see here for further context; there’s also a helpful little map at the front of the book).

The novel has a tremendous sense of place, as its evocative cover suggests. The opening chapter describes the drama of the river’s rising floodwaters after four days of rain, and the strange disappearance of an experienced, but unpopular boatman named Anteo Tonna. When another man with the same surname falls from a window of the local hospital, Commissario Soneri is determined to establish a connection between the two, and the motivation for what he believes is a double murder. However, he soon comes up against the silence of the tightknit community of boatmen, led by the communist Barigazzi, who are unwilling to discuss their complex relationship with the missing man, one compromised by the murky politics of the fascist past.

I loved the atmospheric feel of this novel, the detail provided about life on the water, and the way the symbolism of the river was woven into the crime narrative (the rising floodwaters coincide with the violent deaths of the Tonnas, while the falling waters help to reveal the truth behind the case). Commissario Soneri is an astute and engaging investigative figure, and his interviews with various intriguing river dwellers, such as ‘Maria of the sands’, are nicely portrayed.

But there was one element of the novel I found highly irritating, namely the characterisation of Soneri’s girlfriend Angela, a one-dimensional, sex-mad fantasy figure who is averse to any kind of conventional commitment. Aside from being laughable, her presence undercuts the depiction of the otherwise professional Commissario. For example, I find it hard to believe that a policeman so committed to solving the case would consent to using a crime scene for an erotic rendevouz!

Readers of my previous posts will know that I’ve taken exception to the depiction of women in Italian crime fiction before (see my comments on Ingrid in Camilleri’s The Terracotta Dog). There does seem to be a pattern emerging, and I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of highly stereotyped representations of women are characteristic of Italian crime fiction in a way that they are not, say, for most Scandinavian crime novels. My impression is that male Italian crime writers tend to write for a male audience that expects its crime fiction to have an erotic dimension. However, in my view the latter doesn’t do the central crime narrative any favours (and I say this not out of primness, but because it’s so badly done!).

I will reserve judgement until I have read some further examples of Italian crime, and am actively on the lookout for a novel that proves my theory wrong. If anyone can point me in its direction I would be very grateful…

Mrs. Peabody awards River of Shadows an atmospheric 3.5 stars (one star deducted for its tedious representation of women).

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#3 Davidsen / The Woman from Bratislava

Leif Davidsen, The Woman from Bratislava, trans. from the Danish by Barbara J. Haveland (London: Arcadia Books 2010 [2001]). An ambitious thriller that explores the legacy of the Second World War, but doesn’t quite live up to its early promise. 3 stars

The Woman from Bratislava (Eurocrime)

 Opening sentence: It was a story often used by security-cleared lecturers in the civilian branch of FET, by serving officers of a certain rank and other trusted members of PET when briefing new volunteers on the special conditions under which the secret services had to operate in a post-communist world.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, Davidsen has been described as ‘one of Denmark’s top crime writers’ (The Sunday Times). As a former journalist specializing in Russian and Eastern European affairs, he tends to use the crime/thriller format to explore larger political and historical issues – in the case of The Woman from Bratislava, the legacy of the Second World War, set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War and the collapse of communism in the 1990s.

More specifically, the novel uses the story of a rather unusual family as a means of approaching the complex history of Danish involvement in the Second World War. In the post-communist Bratislava of 1999, middle-aged Danish lecturer Teddy Pedersen is approached by Mira, an Eastern European woman who claims to be his half-sister. She reveals that their Danish father, a former Waffen-SS officer, had not died in 1952 as Teddy had been led to believe, but had gone on to lead a secret second life in Yugoslavia. Shortly afterwards, Teddy’s Danish sister Irma is arrested on suspicion of being a former Stasi (East German) agent, one who has possible links to ‘the woman from Bratislava’. The novel explores the father’s influence on the political development of both sisters – and via them the lingering legacy of fascism in post-war Europe. If you haven’t spotted it already, Irma and Mira are anagrams of one another, which I *think* is supposed to indicate how inextricably intertwined their fates are. Or something profound, at any rate.

This is a very ambitious novel, but one that I felt over-reached itself in places. Davidsen chooses to focus on an extremely controversial bit of Denmark’s wartime past, namely the role of thousands of Danes who fought for the Nazis as members of the Danish Legion and Waffen-SS. The author attempts to provide a 360-degree examination of this historical moment, highlighting on the one hand the war-crimes committed by these young Danes in the service of Nazi ideology, and on the other, the hypocrisy of the Danish government, who in 1941 ‘blessed’ their departure for war, only to treat them as ‘pariahs and outcasts’ when Germany was defeated in 1945 (p.100). (Denmark is shown white-washing its wartime history, recasting its years of occupation by the Germans as a period of heroic resistance, and developing a strategic amnesia to cover the less savory aspects of that past).

In some respects, I admire Davidsen’s bravery in taking on such a controversial subject, and in trying to provide a rounded discussion of how these ‘Nazi Danes’ should be viewed. But at times, I felt that the exploration of their actions needed to be more nuanced, and I wasn’t able to follow the reasons why certain individuals felt moved to defend the Waffen-SS father, or to consider his post-war treatment unjust. It’s possible that Davidsen is trying to critique these characters’ blindness to the father’s criminal wartime activities (a form of misguided love or loyalty), but I’m not entirely convinced that this is the case. At certain points, there’s also a casual, problematic elision of fascism and communism, which rather confusingly leads communist characters to exhibit fascist sympathies and/or sympathy for fascists.

As if all of this were not enough, there’s an overarching thriller/espionage plotline involving the downing of a NATO fighter plane over Yugoslavia, which ends in a (for me largely incomprehensible) twist. It was all a bit too much for this simple reader.

Summary: There’s much to admire about the ambition and scope of this thriller, but its constituent parts do not add up to a satisfactory whole. It may be best suited for readers with an interest in the legacy of the Second World War and the Cold War.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Woman from Bratislavia a rather wobbly 3 stars.