The Confessionby Olen Steinhauer
Eastern Europe, 1956: Comrade Inspector Ferenc Kolyeszar, who is a proletariat writer in addition to his job as a state militia homicide detective, is a man on the brink. Estranged from his wife, whom he believes is cheating on him with one of his colleagues, and frustrated by writer's block, Ferenc's attention is focused on his job. But his job is growing
Eastern Europe, 1956: Comrade Inspector Ferenc Kolyeszar, who is a proletariat writer in addition to his job as a state militia homicide detective, is a man on the brink. Estranged from his wife, whom he believes is cheating on him with one of his colleagues, and frustrated by writer's block, Ferenc's attention is focused on his job. But his job is growing increasingly political, something that makes him profoundly uncomfortable.
When Ferenc is asked to look into the disappearance of a party member's wife and learns some unsavory facts about the party member's life, the absurdity of his position as an employee of the state is suddenly exposed. At the same time, he and his fellow militia officers are pressed into service policing a popular demonstration in the capital, one that Ferenc might rather be participating in. These two situations, coupled with an investigation into the murder of a painter that leads them to a man recently released from the camps, brings Ferenc closer to danger than ever before-from himself, from his superiors, from the capital's shadowy criminal element.
The Confession is a fantastic follow-up to Olen Steinhauer's brilliant debut, The Bridge of Sighs, and it guarantees to advance this talented writer on his way to being one of the premiere thriller writers of a generation.
“Postwar Eastern Europe chillingly evoked by a storyteller... who understands the relentless conjunction between character and suspense.... Good enough to suggest comparison with Graham Greene; place the author in the forefront of contemporary suspense writers...” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This is a gripping and fully realized portrayal of a man whose strengths, flaws, struggle, and ultimate fall are emblematic of the fate of Eastern Europe itself. While skillfully developed, the intricacies of plot, particularly the story behind the diverse crimes, fade to relative insignificance in light of Ferenc's heartrending 'confession'. Densely atmospheric and strongly recommended...” Library Journal (starred review)
“Beyond delivering an involving police procedural in an intriguing setting, the author relates with spare irony his narrator's psychological journey.... [The Confession] is enthusiastically recommended for fans of well-made hard-boiled and noir fiction.” Booklist (starred review)
“Bigger in scope... than The Bridge of Sighs [...Steinhauer's original and mesmerizing first mystery]... the novel makes readers wonder just what Steinhauer will do for the next book in his series...” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Read an Excerpt
By Olen Steinhauer
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Olen Steinhauer
All rights reserved.
Packing up the dacha was a simple, silent affair. Three weeks' worth of clothes, damp underwear still hanging from the back porch, pens and paper, and all the books. I saw Flaubert and Dostoyevsky to the koda's trunk, then wedged my own novel beside them. The creased, sewage-colored paperback was a vainglory I still felt I could afford.
Stories begin this way, with the mundane details. Underwear, books, leaves. Because these are the irrefutable facts; they exist outside speculation. I'm in that dacha now, verifying everything, because while other points in time may be chosen, this is where my confession truly begins.
Then there were the empty brandy bottles, clanking on their way to the car, two full boxes. Magda had helped out that first week, when the conversation sank into mute glances and nods, pouring whenever our glasses were low. But after she walked out I had two weeks to tackle the bottles alone: a big, hulking thirty- seven-year-old drinking brandy from tiny glasses, spending the days in front of blank sheets of paper at the table that looked out onto the dried forest, thinking only that, yes, my wife has finally left me.
And each morning I woke with a stunned head and a pile of still-empty pages.
Once everything was collected I made the slow walk through the bedroom, living room, kitchen. I even looked in the fly-infested out-house to be sure nothing was left behind. Methodical. This was the only way not to imagine her in the shadows and ignore the long walnut hairs left on the sofa. The kitchen stank of old, spilled liquor and the occasional gusts of forest decay through the open windows.
Locked the shutters, then the doors. No extended pause on the front steps, no reflections while looking back on her family's dacha, nervously adjusting my rings.
It took a half hour to reach the main road, then I turned south, where the trees thinned into farmland and fields, and the sun caught on the dirty windshield. I tried in vain to dampen my mouth. Behind a detour, the road was torn apart, and an old woman poured a kettle of steaming tar into a hole while other women with kerchiefs on their heads leaned on shovels and watched. The koda's engine sputtered when I went too fast, and I remembered Georgi's comment when I'd first bought the car. He had walked around it slowly, a hand on his chin, then said: I do believe that very soon socialist engineering will accomplish the dream of fitting an automobile into a shoe box.
Her parents' modest farmhouse looked exactly as it had when I first saw it — 1935, October. I can mark only a few things in time. Magda was a lithe schoolgirl who spent the days in class being ogled by my best friend Stefan and me, and after some unbearable amount of time, I was the lucky one invited to her house for lunch on a Friday afternoon. Sixteen years old, and I was already hers. Storm clouds had overrun the sky then, like now. A warm wind rolled over the orchard-covered hills.
Teodor was outside, eyeing the car before I turned off the engine. His washboard face was crossed by scars and pits. Farming had done it to him, that or the 1949 collectivization push. At family gatherings there were always veiled allusions to commissars starving them out of their complacency.
We shook hands, and he asked how long the trip had taken. He always seemed to think he could judge the value of a man or a day by the economy of travel.
"Two hours, about."
"Some good time, that."
"My daughter around here somewhere?" I asked.
Teodor nodded at the house, and as we approached it he spoke beneath his breath: "How about my daughter?"
"Don't be smart."
"She's in the city, I suppose."
The old farmer opened the door for me, and Pavel, our black-and-tan dachshund, trotted up and let out a short bark.
Magda's mother's baked apples smelled sweet and fruity — it was all she knew how to cook. She came out of the kitchen, wiping fat fingers on her apron, and gave me a kiss. Pillow cheeks and thin lips.
"Hello yourself." She didn't need to ask the question; she only needed to look significantly over my shoulder at the empty doorway.
Ágnes stumbled out of the guest room holding a book and squinting through thick, black-framed glasses. "Hello, Daddy."
Fourteen years old and, even behind glasses and foggy with sleep, showing strong signs of her mother's lazy beauty. I could smell the boredom of these three weeks all over her.
We ate Nora's meager potatoes and paprika outside in the shriveling, bush-lined private garden, shaded by the house. A dusty breeze from the apple orchard made the napkins tremble on the worn wooden table. Teodor kept on with his questions about the condition of the road, the shape of his dacha, and, after these practicalities were out of the way, the writing. "Is your book still in print?"
"It's not," I admitted as I finished the meal. "Maybe once I get this other one finished, they'll print more, but not now."
"And when will this second book be done?" asked Teodor. "It's been — how long?"
"Four years," said Nora, but without judgment.
"It took ten years to get that first one out," I said.
"Daddy's going to write a proletarian novel," said Ágnes. It was the second time she'd spoken since I arrived, and in her long grin I read a lovely irony.
"Like that man?" asked Nora. "What was his name?"
"I don't know what I'll write."
Magda's father leaned forward. "You mean you haven't started?"
I wanted to explain, again, that I was a militiaman. Maybe I had only one book in me — that was okay — and now I could go back to what I actually was. And lead, at least generally, a virtuous life. The brief celebrity had been good, the friends I'd made — the literary clique led by Georgi Radevych — and the supplemental income. Although the primary proceeds of the book went into the state bank, a personal allocation had bought the koda sitting outside, most of Ágnes's better clothes, and the big German radio set back at home. But now, the writing was probably finished. It certainly hadn't come at the dacha, once my wife had left me again, and the last two weeks had been an unproductive alcoholic misery.
But I said nothing. I forced a smile and looked at Ágnes in order to forget the old farm couple waiting for that next book.
Magda's father was still sturdy despite the weathering he'd taken over the years, and could probably even stand up to me, were it to ever come to that. He was nearly as big as I was, and I'd wondered often if this was part of Magda's attraction to me, that I was a large man, like her father.
We'd eaten the apples, which were blander than they smelled, and the women had gone inside. Teodor uncorked a bottle of northern red for us, but did not pour. This was the obligation of entering his house and eating his food: the talk. For a while, we only looked out at the thousand hectares he shared with nearly a hundred other families. Pavel burrowed frantically into clumps of hot earth.
"So it didn't work," he said finally. "What now?"
"You wait for it to go to hell."
"Something like that."
Teodor gazed at the spindly bushes that separated their personal plot from the fields, then rocked his head from one side to the other.
This was the long silence in which Teodor worked. It made me — and he knew this — want to clarify that I wasn't simply admitting defeat. For the last four years I'd known what was going on. I'd seen it in her, in myself, and I'd done what I could. Maybe I wasn't bright enough to know what to do; maybe we were both stupid in such matters. So we listened to our friends and family, who told us we needed to get out of the city. We needed peace. Together in her parents' small dacha in the woods near Sárospatak, over the space of three weeks, we would find what we'd lost along the way. But Magda's patience had crumbled. This is all too self-conscious, she said before she left. You can't force this kind of thing.
"I don't think she wants to," I told him. "She's always the one to walk out."
"And you didn't chase her down, did you?"
I looked at my oversized hands, at the rings on each finger.
"You think you've got problems." He poured our glasses and watched as I swallowed mine quickly. "I got a letter from a friend in Warsaw. You know what's been going on there? It's not in The Spark, I can tell you that." He tapped his glass on the table. "Demonstrations in Poznan, that's what. Back in June they had days of it. Workers out in the street because they were hungry. Then the troops came in, shooting. Seventy-four killed. Not by Russian troops, not like you'd think. But by their own boys. Polish soldiers killing Polish workers."
I poured myself another. He was right; I hadn't heard any of this.
"When that happens," said Teodor, "you get your bearings again. It's only in peacetime you have the luxury of divorce."
She kept Pavel on her lap as I drove, and the dog slept, blissful and mute. I asked her about tomorrow, her first day at school. She shrugged. "Did you study your French?"
I had been hoping to get her into the French high school at the beginning of Yalta Boulevard. Her state-run school, the "Rosa Luxembourg," had never been much of an institution, even before the Liberation. But she'd failed the language test last May. "We can try again. There's no shame in a second chance."
She shrugged again, then after a moment asked the question, easily, trying to make it sound as if it hadn't been the only thing on her mind ever since I had shown up. "Mama didn't make it?"
I shook my head and watched the road, but could see her mouth moving as though she was chewing on something. Maybe she was.
"How did she get home?"
"There's only one car."
I glanced into the rearview and noticed a hitchhiker with a small, hand-drawn sign: RELEASED FROM POLITICAL PRISON. I hadn't seen him when we approached, and that troubled me. "I drove her to the station."
"She took the train?"
"That's what I said."
I understood a fraction of what she was thinking. She could not fathom how anyone could calmly drive his wife to the train station and send her away. Not without some scene; some breakdown and reconciliation.
She nodded at the road. Her cheeks and forehead were very red from her three weeks under the provincial sun. I always insisted she wear a hat, but she thought she looked stupid in hats, which was untrue. And Magda's parents seemed to think any amount of sun was a virtue, that even when my daughter's pale skin turned red and crisp it was only a sign of health. She looked thin, too, and I rashly vowed never to leave her with them again.
"Did you have a good time?"
She grunted something incomprehensible.
"Well? What did you do?"
She pulled too hard on Pavel's ear, and the dog made a squeaking noise in his sleep. "Picked apples, bought apples, talked apples."
I laid a hand on her shoulder, then tugged her earlobe. "Miss me?"
She pulled her head away, but smiled. "Of course not."
They had been working on the Ninth District for as long as I could remember. Whenever I left town for an extended period, I fantasized that when I crossed back over the muddy Tisa and drove north, the roads would be smooth, the piles of broken concrete gone. But now, as then, there were still three unfinished shells, and the road that wrapped around each unit of eight blocks had still not been paved. Long ago it had been plowed, some gravel thrown halfheartedly on it, but with each hard rain, the road slid into the ditches. Now that it was dry, the koda whined, climbing out of potholes, and crunched when it hit them. Pavel sprang up in the backseat, barking at a couple strays running past. Ágnes was unconcerned, but I calculated damages in my head. The six-story blocks of Unit 15 to our left, set at an angle to the road, were lit yellow by the descending sun, and I wondered if she was up there, watching us navigate the holes and turn off the road into the well of shadow between the buildings, trying to get home. At least I hoped this with every muscle in my tight, sweating hands.
Children at the next corner climbed over a hill of concrete slabs, and just beyond them two slumped, babushkaed women fed chickens in the heat that in the provinces had been almost invigorating; here, it was only stifling. I parked by two other, older kodas and a Russian make I didn't know and grabbed our bags from the backseat. Ágnes took Pavel. As we stepped over dry rivulets, one of the women with the chickens called to me: "Come arrest my brother, Comrade Inspector! I've been waiting a month!"
I measured out my syllables, as if for a child: "We've been through this, Claudia. I can't arrest your brother for drinking in his own home. Anyway, homicide inspectors don't take care of this. You have the number to call."
"See what I told you?" she said to her friend, who hadn't looked up from the chickens until now. "Just does his hours and goes home."
The friend shook her head, muttering something I couldn't hear. I started to tell Ágnes to hurry up, but she was already ahead of me, looking down on Pavel, his leg raised, pissing absently on the corner of our block, Unit 15:6.
The mailbox was empty, which was a good sign. The stairs had been recently cleaned, though nothing could get rid of the smell of boiled cabbage, and on each landing someone had set out leafy green plants. On the top floor, there were none. Our door was locked. The apartment felt stuffy, unlived-in, and I began speculating wildly. We opened the windows, the fresh air bringing in voices and the hack of a car coughing to life.
"She's not here," said Ágnes as she set Pavel on the rug. He did not run away, only peered around at the sofa and table and the wide German radio against the wall.
The bed didn't look slept in. But Magda made it up every morning; it told me nothing. The icebox, though, had fresh milk. Ágnes took out some water. She drank from the bottle and leaned against the counter, looking at me.
I hoped she wouldn't repeat the obvious, because if she did I was afraid I might shout at her. She didn't. She instead drank her water and left the kitchen, making tsk tsk sounds, calling for Pavel.
When she came across the note on the radio, I was still in the kitchen. The curtain was pulled, so it was very dark. Ágnes, from the doorway, said, "Daddy?"
I didn't answer right away, but noticed that she'd turned on the radio. Shostakovich murmured through the house. "What is it?"
"She left a note for you."
Something seemed to crack inside me. She had a small sheet of paper in her hand. It was almost weightless, and when I brought it into the light of the living room it shook in my hand. I unfolded it by the window and got a clear view of the angular script. I read it twice to be sure. Then I almost laughed. It was a telephone message. Stefan, my old friend and Militia partner, had called. While I was on vacation — if that's what it could be called — there'd been a case.
"Daddy?" said Ágnes. She sounded afraid, so I smiled and turned up the Shostakovich.
"It's nothing," I said, my smile now authentic. "Someone's been killed."
I slept on the couch, because this was where I'd been sleeping for months. The mosquitoes woke me, but I survived by pulling the sheet over my head and sweating. I heard her come in, saw the dim light from the stairwell as she opened the door, then smelled the cigarettes on her clothes when she passed. Pavel whimpered in recognition. She didn't look at me, and I didn't say a thing.
A thump to the head woke me. Ágnes's stern face was in mine — she was dressed. "We're going to be late," she said.
"Have you walked your dog?"
Her expression relaxed.
"Well then," I said.
I waited for the hot water to reach our floor, then shaved and gave myself a quick wash from the sink. I toweled off and went into the bedroom for clothes. Magda was still sleeping under a mess of sheets, her walnut hair curled against the pillow, and a bare, dirty foot stuck out below. I considered waking her, then realized she was probably already awake, playing dead until I left the apartment.
I drove Ágnes to a café in the center before sending her off to school. I always did this on first days — the drive and the breakfast were to mark something important. There was the usual mess of blue work clothes and old, quiet men in berets who perked up at the sight of a young girl. We sat by the window. "Are you nervous?" She shrugged and pushed her glasses closer to her eyes. "First days are exciting." But she didn't answer; she was becoming quieter as she got older. She was becoming more like her mother.
Emil Brod and Brano Sev were the only ones in the office this early, and Brano, behind his files, turned his round face with its three moles and gave the usual, polite half nod. The last time I'd seen him, the state security inspector had a mouth full of metal braces, but now they were off, and his teeth, when he flashed a brief, self-conscious smile, were straight and true. It was a clever lie. We'd worked with him over a decade now, but like all the world's secret policemen, his world was run by a dark logic none of us was privy to.
Emil's blond hair was combed to a perfect part, like a schoolboy's. "You're back," he said, smiling.
Excerpted from The Confession by Olen Steinhauer. Copyright © 2004 Olen Steinhauer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Olen Steinhauer was inspired to write his Eastern European crime series while on a Fulbright Fellowship in Romania. His first novel, The Bridge of Sighs, was shortlisted for the Edgar Award, the Macavity Award, the Barry Award, the Anthony Award, and the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. Raised in Texas, he currently lives in Budapest.
OLEN STEINHAUER, the New York Times bestselling author of nine previous novels, is a Dashiell Hammett Award winner, a two-time Edgar award finalist, and has also been shortlisted for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Barry awards. Raised in Virginia, he lives in New York and Budapest, Hungary.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
Now turning thirty, seven years has passed since an idealistic Emil Brod joined the police force as a Comrade Homicide Detective, but now by 1956 he is like his peers, grim and ever looking over his shoulders at the KGB representative. Emil has learned survival means trust no one and gingerly investigate whenever the Party is involved................................ Meanwhile Police Officer Ferenc Kolyeszar prefers to be a novelist, but in this small Communist nation getting anything published is controlled by the Party. Though Ferenc has talent his résumé shows one paperback. Now he writes a book about the depressing world of artists representing Everyman behind the Iron Curtain. Any creativity typically leads to work camps that even in the post Stalin era remains dehumanizing and deadly. Besides the censorship that haunts Ferenc, he suffers remorse over a recent assignment involving college students. As he investigates the murder of a party bureaucrat, KGB agent Kaminski watches Ferenc looking forward to destroying the wannabe author...................... This 1950s Communist police procedural is a terrific tale that provides the audience with insight into life inside a Soviet satellite country just after the death of Stalin. The strong story line surprisingly relegates the hero of the first novel (BRIDGE OF SIGHS) to a cynical secondary role. This allows comparison to Ferenc, a tragic Shakespearean character who knows that his latest case will personally cost him dearly; yet he cannot adapt to the party line especially after he carried out a recent assignment to bash the heads of protesting college students. This is a great Eastern European Communist historical police procedural that should provide Owen Steinhauer a strong fan base.............................. Harriet Klausner
Set in 1956 Eastern Europe, one reads of labor camps, neighbor's spying on neighbors and the need to follow a set code of conduct if one wants to stay out of harms way. Conrade Inspector Ferenec Kolyeszar walks the line both as a policeman and as a want-to-be writer. Not for someone looking for a cheery detective story, Steinhauer helps us feel if not understand how hard life was like way back when. He weaves together a story of a 'good' cop who tries to solve crimes without upsetting the political applecart too much. Very well written and makes one appreciate our present lives in light of the past.