I read somewhere that Olen Steinhauer was a good mystery writer. He is. And is more. The Bridge Of Sighs, set in an unnamed Eastern European country, post WWII, traces the efforts of newly-minted homicide detective Emil Brod to solve the murder of a fairly-famous songwriter. The investigation is also his coming-of-age as policeman, adult, and survivor in a totalitarian society.
The Bridge of Sighs is Venetian, the last crossing for convicted criminals before their incarceration in a famously brutal prison. I thought I remembered a recent movie of the same name, but could only find old ones, produced long before the 2003 publication of Steinhauer’s version of what has obviously been a phrase that attracted artists of various media for some time. In this case, it’s a metaphor for crossing into brutal horrors of Stalinist oppression.
Brod’s a young guy who makes a ton of mistakes. I don’t recall an author putting his protagonist in worse situations than Steinhauer creates for poor Emil. But we’re always on his side and hopeful even when he stumbles and bumbles. Sometimes because he has such a good heart (he doesn’t always), and sometimes because the evil guys are so unimaginably vile. Reviewers often use the word “gritty” to describe detective novels. In this case, it’s not figurative. In a bombed out environment where so much is in ruins and the main dish is cabbage, it’s impossible to stay clean, it seems. Streets, clothes, water, morals, are all soiled all the time. I guess that’s another thing that makes Brod appealing, his desperate struggle to stay clean. And that’s what makes The Bridge of Sighs a literary as well as a genre novel. The crime is greater than the sum of the plot.