International Crime Fiction Review: INNOCENCE; OR, MURDER ON STEEP STREET by Heda Margolius Kovaly

innocence or murder on steep street

  • Post by Molly

W atching the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, I had an epiphany: heavy metal, a genre created by suburban teenagers, suddenly makes perfect lyrical sense in the midst of a war zone. The violent lyrical content of American imagination manifested physically in the actual experience of Iraqi lives, and Middle Eastern fans of the genre responded not to the escapism of heavy metal, but to its realism in their context.

After finishing Heda Margolius Kovály’s mystery novel, Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street, I had a similar feeling. I felt as though the entire noir genre had been created to represent American metaphors, yet destined to represent Soviet reality. After all, what is more morally ambiguous, more desperate, more traitorous, brutal or compromising, then the uncertain lives of colonial subjects during the Stalin era?

Heda  Margolius Kovály, a Czech writer and translator, survived first the Holocaust and then the Soviet purges that took her first husband. She moved to the United States with her second husband, a professor, and worked as a translator. She published her memoir of the Holocaust, Under A Silver Star, in the 1970s, to great acclaim.

In the mid-80s, she released her first and only detective novel, Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street, to the Czech diaspora, yet the novel was published in its original language in the Czech Republic only recently, and this year appeared in its first English translation, beautifully done by Alex Zucker.   Kovály translated Raymond Chandler’s novels into Czech, and she evokes Chandler’s style so fluidly that one could almost believe her to be the Czech female reincarnation of Raymond himself.

Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street follows a woman working at a movie theater. Her husband has been arrested as a political prisoner, despite his apolitical stance, and she has taken a job well below her qualifications while working to secure her husband’s release. Her colleague at the theater, a fellow usher, makes an introduction to a Soviet official who promises to take a look at her husband’s case. Charming at first, the corrupt official manipulates Margolius’ protagonist into performing increasingly shameful acts in her desperate efforts to reunite with her husband.

Margolius Kovály shows the insidious nature of the Soviet state, especially as imposed upon satellite Eastern Bloc nations, and the system’s poisonous effects on communities. Margolius Kovály’s protagonist lives in a world of women, and ostensibly a world of female community, the men either dead from the war or imprisoned by the Soviets. The women she works with at the theater, instead of supporting each other, constantly try to disrupt each-others’ small forms of privilege, and are turned against one another by the demands of the state.

The best intentions become quickly corrupted by KGB absurdities. Helping one person can mean throwing several others under the bus, or submitting oneself to degradation and misery. Slawomir Sierakowski, in his article “From The Age of Fear to the Age of Shame,” translated into English by Maria Blackwood, theorizes that the 20th century was the century of fear, with social control enforced from without via terror, while the 21st is shaping up to be the century of shame and internalized social control.

Margolius Kovály’s vision of 1950s Prague is marked not only by terror, but by shame and humiliation as well. Her heroine must be both fearless and shameless to get even close to achieving her goals, but this is a Soviet noir, so don’t count on a happy ending. Do, however, count on beautiful, intricate, and bleak noir from a master of the genre.

You can find copies of Innocence on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

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